On August 30 of last year, the email was sent out. Soon after, the news broke publicly. We all know the story. A cheating scandal, the largest this campus has ever known—or in the words of Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris, one “unprecedented in anyone’s living memory”—had been uncovered and was under full-fledged investigation. The course was Government 1310, and the professor Matthew B. Platt.
After five months, we can say with a bit of confidence that the administration bears a considerable amount of blame for the harmful way in which proceedings were carried out. Specifically, the glacial pace of the Administrative Board process caused students undue stress and exposed the need for substantial reform. The picture that is forming before us implicates the class and school just as much as many accused students. This was a process fraught with institutional failure, and it is one that deserves not just our attention, but also our action.
The scandal was first discovered when, in mid-May, Platt and some of his teaching fellows noticed glaring similarities in the content and structure of different exams’ answers, as well as a typo repeated exactly by multiple students. From there one would assume the investigation took off with full force and speed, since Platt already suspected 13 of his students of plagiarism and had contacted the Ad Board regarding such. Yet it took the administration as many as three months to notify some students. This is where the investigation’s process should first be called into question. The immensity of the case, implicating roughly 125 of the class’s 279 students, could be seen as reason for the delay. Even when taking into account that large scope, though, three months remains an inexplicably and inexcusably long amount of time needed to look over the exams.
This slow pace of the investigation did not come without severe consequence, either. Investigated students and alumni made public early on the burdensome uncertainty that the late August announcement placed on them, an uncertainty only heightened for those left without a verdict until late fall. The stress this created caused some students to, despite maintaining their innocence, withdraw before their cases were even heard out of fear that their tuition and board fees might go to waste. Most others who similarly feared financial waste went on with their semesters anyway but remained ever tormented by the looming possibility of having to withdraw. The issue of such financial inequity, determined arbitrarily by when in the semester a student would have to leave, has since been addressed by Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael Smith. This address came all too late, though, for the many students who had already suffered in believing that they might have had to sink their tuition and board costs if asked to withdraw.
Such uncertainty was a burden on the implicated students not only during the investigation, but also during last term’s now-controversial exam period. Former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 and prominent alumnus Thomas G. Stemberg ’71 have both voiced their disappointment with how the course in question was run, noting that it was known campus-wide as an easy A. Yet despite this reputation, it appears Professor Platt significantly altered the course’s style for the spring of 2012 and in doing so made its exams not only tougher, but also less clear in what they asked of students. Some students also said that collaboration was historically known to be a part of the course’s exams, but again the 2012 changes lead to new guidelines on what was and was not prohibited. Adding to the confusion, comments made by students in the Q Guide last spring suggest that some teaching fellows for the course helped students on the final exam by defining terms and discussing questions.
If teaching staff did not observe exam policies, one can hardly expect students to. While collaboration was prohibited on paper, in practice it seems that the opposite was perceived to be true, and so uncertainty in what was and wasn’t allowed among students and teaching fellows enabled the collaboration that would later be punished.
So yes, students that withdrew may have cheated on their final exams—in fact, several most definitely did via brazen copy-pasting—but the teaching staff and Ad Board failed to provide those same students with the process they deserved. Beyond simply highlighting the necessity of academic integrity, this scandal also highlights the necessity of good teaching, of clear policy, and of fair process. The student body should not just hope but also actively urge that in each of these areas Harvard improve. We should demand clearer collaboration policies, fewer poorly managed courses, and more timely Ad Board processes. Perhaps the scandal will ultimately prove important as an instigator of change rather than just as a stain on Harvard’s reputation.
Students shouldn’t cheat, and we should always work to reduce both academic dishonesty and the environments that facilitate it. But equally important is that students not be left in academic limbo while their case is worked out for months.