Landing On Their Feet

In April of last year, my father found himself at the center of a grizzly scandal at the University of
By Leon Neyfakh

In April of last year, my father found himself at the center of a grizzly scandal at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s department of pharmacology. The controversy stemmed from a cheating incident that took place at an exam administered in his Pharmacology 331 course—a boy had apparently prepared a crib sheet and had been caught peeking at it during the test. Soon after, my father met with him in his office, listened to his weepy apologies, and examined his cheat sheet. It quickly became clear that the piece of paper could not have helped the boy in answering any of the questions on the exam—the information there was irrelevant, and some of the sentences he had scribbled down weren’t even correct. My father subtracted five points from his test score and let him walk.

(continued from page 11) According to school policy, the cheater should have received a failing grade and been forced to retake the course. Some of his classmates were outraged that this punishment was not properly carried out. “I am extremely disappointed in the fact that a student was caught cheating and is released without penalty,” one student wrote in an e-mail addressed to my father and several others in the department. “I study very very hard for all of my classes and sometimes I score below the average and to find out that A) students are getting caught cheating and B) students are cheating in the first place makes me disgusted!”

My father drafted a response and sent it to the student, explaining the circumstances of the incident and emphasizing the tragic ineptitude the boy had demonstrated in crafting his useless crib sheet. He concluded: “I am of the opinion that ultimate penalty should never be imposed for the first violation of any rule. Although discipline is important, a society that does not give people a second chance is no fun.”

Most of his colleagues stood behind his decision. Some, however, were not so happy, writing him angry letters and even going over his head to try to reverse the ruling. To diffuse the situation, the department scheduled a forum with select members of the faculty and the student council in which my father would defend his judgment and take questions. In advance of the discussion, he asked a department supervisor to post his original response to the course website, so that everyone could see it. “Don’t omit the last sentence,” he warned, “about ‘no fun.’”

There are two stories here: one is about second chances, the other about the nature of university scandal. Harvard has had to think about both a fair deal in the last three years, most visibly with the resignation of Larry Summers, and to a lesser extent, with the vicious show trials of students Kaavya Viswanathan ’08, Eugene Plotkin ’00, and Nick Sylvester ‘04. Below, you’ll also find the story of Shing-Tung Yau, a Harvard mathematician who has recently come under fire in The New Yorker.

This is a scrutiny about what it’s like to be branded, and what it’s like to try to win back your name. Careful when you read it, though: most of the professors profiled here were merely accused of wrongdoing, and as is usually the case with sticky situations, no one knows for sure what really happened in many of the scandals we recount. All we remember, and indeed, all we care to remember, is that controversy was stirred, stones were cast, and accusations were made.

Whether it was fair or not matters little when it comes to reputation, and these professors all had wounds to lick when their time in the hot lights expired. This is the story of the licking, and it is a stone cast in the name of the second chance.