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Ad Board's Educational Mission Under Scrutiny

By Mercer R. Cook and Rebecca D. Robbins, Crimson Staff Writers

Part I of a four-part series analyzing how successful the 2009-2010 reforms have been in making the Administrative Board’s disciplinary process more educational, transparent, and empowering for accused students. Part IIPart III, and Part IV were published Oct. 24-26.

Nearly five years before Harvard’s current cheating scandal brought its disciplinary process into the national spotlight, a small committee was tasked with reforming the College’s enigmatic disciplinary body: the Administrative Board.

As they drafted their recommendations on issues ranging from advising to fact-finding, members of the Committee to Review the Administrative Board strived to create “a more educational process, rather than one that leaves people cynical and jaded,” recalled Matthew L. Sundquist ‘09, a former Undergraduate Council president who served as the committee’s only student member.

The committee’s emphasis on pedagogy was nowhere more apparent than in their recommendation to introduce new, less severe penalties for academic integrity cases. These “local sanctions”—which could range from tutoring to a failing grade on the assignment—were designed to remedy an approach that many criticized for linking educational wrongdoing with a punishment of questionable educational value: the requirement to temporarily withdraw from the College.

But now, two years after the reform was approved, new data raise questions about how effective the new local sanctions have been in aligning the Board’s punishments with its pedagogical mission.

The Board’s 2005-2012 records for academic integrity cases show that as faculty report far more students for academic dishonesty since the reform, the Board is issuing forced withdrawals for only a slightly smaller percentage of the cases that come its way. As a result, more cheaters are being asked to leave Harvard in the wake of the reform that many hoped would reduce the number of forced withdrawals.

This fall, some of the roughly 125 students accused of improperly collaborating in Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress” will likely be forced to take a year off from school, a punishment that some say will dog them long after their undergraduate years but teach them nothing about appropriate academic practices.

MORE OPTIONS, MORE WITHDRAWALS

In the years before the reforms, a reported perception among faculty members that the Board’s penalties were overly harsh generated concern among College administrators that professors were underreporting academic dishonesty.

In this climate, the committee proposed in its 2009 report that the “limited range of sanctions” then available to the Board be expanded to include penalties for academic dishonesty incidents that “could best be treated as teaching moments between the student and faculty member.”

For such cases, the committee advocated the creation of new options in an effort to remedy what they perceived as a one-size-fits-all approach, Sundquist said. These new local sanctions include required tutoring, a course warning, a required re-do of the assignment in question, a grade penalty, or a failing grade for the assignment. Students could also be “excluded” from a class, which would leave a mark on the transcript equivalent to a failing grade.

Now, after two full academic years with the reforms in place, Jeff Neal, a spokesperson for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote in an emailed statement that the local sanctions have been “very successful.” Neal declined to speak about the Ad Board in person or over the phone.

Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Lecturer Andrew Berry, who has informally advised students going before the Ad Board for academic dishonesty cases, said he thinks local sanctions have led students to view the Board less fearfully than before.

“The email from the Ad Board does look like the end of the world, but it’s less associated with hellfire than it used to be,” Berry said.

Last spring, Berry said, several of his students in Life Sciences 1b went before the Board for academic dishonesty infractions in a process that Berry thought reflected the nuances of the individual cases.

“Instead of escalating, things were dealt with in a more constructive way,” Berry recalled. “What could have been a brutal punishment turned into a teachable moment.”

At the end of the process, Berry said, “nobody who I felt didn’t deserve to be kicked out” was asked to withdraw.

In the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 academic years, 34.9 percent of academic dishonesty cases resulted in required withdrawals compared to 40.3 percent in the five years before the reform, according to statistics provided to The Crimson.

But in each of those two most recent years, more than 80 cases of academic dishonesty were reported to the Ad Board, almost double the average of 42 cases annually from 2005 to 2010. That jump meant a greater number of students forced to withdraw—an average of 29 students each year, up from 17—despite the availability of less severe penalties.

With local sanctions and course exclusions making up just over 20 percent of all total outcomes of academic dishonesty cases in the past two academic years, it is unclear how fully the reform has changed the Board’s punishment paradigm, or if it will play a role any role all in the current cheating investigation.

Neal declined to comment on whether local sanctions are being considered as a possible punishment in the Government 1310 case.

PEDAGOGICAL OR PUNITIVE?

While some maintain that the Board’s process and punishments serve its educative mission, critics argue that the nature of some of the Board’s punishments generate long-term consequences that make the Board a fundamentally punitive institution.

Harvard takes steps to ensure that student’s time away from the College is productive. Before they can be re-admitted to the College, students are required to hold non-academic employment for at least six months.

Arthur, a student who was forced to temporarily withdraw from the college, wrote in an emailed statement that although he was initially upset about his punishment, he now feels he has benefited from the experience.

“I am enjoying my time off and think that the requirement for 6 months of non-academic work is great,” wrote Arthur, who requested that his name be changed because he did not want it known that he had been forced to withdraw from school. “I don’t have any antipathy for the Ad Board anymore.”

But Michael R. Schneider, a lawyer who has served as a consultant for students facing the Ad Board process, questioned the educative value of such a punishment.

“The Ad Board’s philosophy really understates or ignores the very punitive nature of the sanctions that they impose,” Schneider said, referring to required withdrawals. “The University needs to realize that it is really making it difficult for some really solid students who may have had one lapse in their academic careers.”

Paulette G. Curtis ’92, who served as resident dean of Dunster House from 2002 to 2008, also questioned whether the Board was fundamentally educational. She called that description “a bit imprecise” because it does not “incorporate the full spectrum of intentions.”

Instead, Curtis said, the Board’s mission is twofold: Board members strive to educate students about academic integrity while simultaneously upholding the University’s reputation as an institution that places high value on honest authorship. That second mission, she said, sometimes requires consequences that some may perceive as punitive.

LASTING CONSEQUENCES

Biology professor Richard M. Losick, who has served as a personal adviser for students before the Ad Board, said that the most punitive element of a forced withdrawal is the permanent note that goes on a student’s record following that punishment.

While probation is only temporarily noted on a student’s transcript during the period of punishment, a forced withdrawal leaves a permanent mark, though the reason for the withdrawal is not indicated.

“If you’re kicked out for a year and that’s on your record, that’s not educational. That’s a severe punishment,” Losick said. “A lot is at stake.”

Schneider said that he has spoken with medical school and law school admissions officers who have admitted that such a mark on the transcript significantly lowers a student’s chance of admission.

Daniel, a student implicated in the Government 1310 scandal who asked that his name be changed because he did not want it known that he was accused of cheating, agreed that transcript marks have the power to affect a student’s career after college.

“Everyone knows that if you get required to withdraw, that’s almost the kiss of death in the academic realm,” Daniel said.

Neal, however, defended the permanent mark on the transcript, saying it is a necessary explanation of a student’s historical record at the College.

Neal wrote that administrators strive to ensure that this mark does not serve as an insurmountable obstacle for students in the future.

Curtis said that many of her students returned to Harvard after a forced withdrawal with a new perspective, drive, and focus on their academic careers. In such cases, Curtis said, she could write letters of recommendation that acknowledged a student’s disciplinary infraction while also emphasizing their holistic success at Harvard.

“I could often very honestly say that that was a blip on the screen, that was a moment that was difficult for the student, but they have since picked themselves up,” she said, adding these students were often successful in their efforts to find employment or go to graduate school.

EDUCATION IN THE SPOTLIGHT

But there are some marks that the College cannot help students explain away, a fact particularly evident in the Government 1310 cheating scandal.

Last month, reports circulated that the captains of the men’s basketball team, Kyle D. Casey ’13 and Brandyn T. Curry ’13, planned to voluntarily withdraw from Harvard because of possible disciplinary action stemming from their involvement in the scandal.

Transcripts aside, Casey and Curry will be linked to the cheating scandal if ever a potential employer decides to Google them.

Gary Pavela, a former Director of Academic Integrity at Syracuse University who has also consulted with other institutions, said that the publicity of a case such as the Government 1310 scandal undermines the ability of a disciplinary board to educate involved students.

A better solution, he said, is to educate students about their mistakes without creating long-term negative consequences. At Syracuse, he said, first-time violators of the academic integrity policy are typically punished with a failing grade in the course and a mark on their transcripts. That mark disappears after a student successfully completes a not-for-credit seminar designed to educate students about proper academic practices and the importance of trust between a student and teacher.

But Neal wrote that because so many cases of academic dishonesty are the result of an overstressed student searching for a shortcut, “it would not always be prudent to add new seminars or classes to that burden.”

But Pavela disagreed, citing national studies that show a correlation between an increasing number of academic dishonesty cases and decreasing student workloads.

And while Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris said at the time the scandal was announced that administrators went public with the investigation in part so that they could “treat it as a teaching opportunity,” some say that Harvard is missing the point.

Daniel, the student involved in the current scandal, said he believes that by bringing the massive case to the Ad Board, Harvard has scapegoated students in Government 1310 instead of addressing the larger pedagogical issues that could lead up to 125 students to cheat on a single test.

Rather than punishing students, Daniel said, Harvard should be facilitating conversations to educate faculty about how to be more clear about their expectations and to teach students about appropriate usage of study guides and other methods of collaboration.

By focusing on punishment, Daniel said, “I think you miss important teaching moments that could really, really be good for the Harvard community.”

—Staff writer Mercer R. Cook can be reached at mcook@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at rrobbins@college.harvard.edu.

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College AdministrationAd Board