The Fall of Academics at Harvard

Dennis A. Sun

UPDATED: April 23, 2013, at 7:54 p.m.

On a Thursday night in the spring of 2012, students huddled in study groups in Lamont Café, racing against the clock to finish an assignment due the next day. Notes and textbooks were shared, suggestions passed back and forth. There were dozens of students there, or at least enough that voices echoed to amplify the buzz of discussion.

The task’s guidelines for completion were hazy, and the fact that the course had many section leaders with varying expectations heightened the confusion. It was easy for members in the crowd to help each other out. For those who didn’t understand, didn’t have time, or just didn’t care, group work turned into copying.

That summer, after Lamont had emptied out for the semester, the accusations came. The cheating was “unprecedented in anyone's living memory,” according to Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris.

But the students who had collaborated in Lamont that spring evening faced no accusations. They had not been enrolled in Government 1310.

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The students in Lamont, who were described by a fellow classmate, had been working on a problem set for Economics 10. It was Government 1310, though, that received national attention after Harris announced in August that the Administrative Board was investigating approximately 125 students for inappropriate collaboration on a take-home final in a spring course.

The scandal was followed by months of discussion and closed-door deliberations, ending this February 1 with an announcement from Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith that left the results hushed and inconclusive. Over half of the students were forced to withdraw; about half of the remaining cases resulted in disciplinary probation.

Government 1310 has been treated by some administrators as the unfortunate exception, an isolated incident whose case has now been closed. But as academic integrity dances uncertainly through a campus whose gates and walls are engraved with a motto of truth, Veritas is at stake.

The scandal speaks to a more systemic problem with the value Harvard places on its undergraduate education. The institution and the community condones, if not promotes, academic dishonesty, emphasizing prestige over intellectual growth. Academics are no longer the priority of the students or teachers at Harvard College.

No Surprises

Days before the August announcement of the Government 1310 investigations, Brett Flehinger filled a newly created position, associate secretary of the Administrative Board, aimed at promoting awareness of policies surrounding the issue of academic integrity.

His appointment seemed to signal an acknowledgement from the University that academic dishonesty is a widespread issue in need of address, and yet a reluctance to acknowledge a culture of cheating beyond Government 1310 persists.

“I think to say that there is a particular culture here that causes [academic dishonesty]—I don’t even know how we would measure that culture in the first place, but even if we could—I don’t think that would be accurate,” Flehinger says, when asked whether there are underlying factors that promote academic dishonesty at the College.

Flehinger’s statement casts Government 1310 as an example of the extreme: 125 students taking advantage of one class’s unclear collaboration policy.

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