A Penal System

The Ad Board clearly requires further reforms

The 125 students currently under investigation by Harvard’s Administrative Board for their potential participation in the Congress cheating scandal—as well as other students who have recently gone before the Ad Board for academic dishonesty—are going through a process that is markedly different from the one they would have faced two years ago. For one, reforms made in 2010 have created new types of outcomes for students that include “local sanctions,” like requiring students to take advantage of tutoring, or penalizing them through grades.

However, an investigation by The Crimson that ran in four parts last week made it clear that the “reformed” Administrative Board is far from perfect. In fact, it is clear that the Ad Board must be both changed and re-conceptualized in order to become a fair and reasonable procedure.

Harvard frames the Administrative Board as an educational entity. It is possible to think of a way in which the University might be able to educate students who have faced the Administrative Board for reasons of academic dishonesty: for example, Syracuse University sends students to a “not-for-credit seminar designed to educate students about proper academic practices and the importance of trust between a student and teacher.” However, it is clear that Harvard’s Ad Board, as it is framed now, is far from an educational process. In reality, it is a penal institution, and it doesn't do anyone any favors to anyone by claiming to be anything else.

It seems clear that the Ad Board remains just as enigmatic and incomprehensible to students—both those who have never gone before that Board and those who have—as it was before the 2010 reforms. Confusion about the role of the Resident Dean, lack of student representation on the board, and lack of knowledgeable advisors can only contribute to a vision of the Ad Board as an immutably disciplinary process.

Students have the right to be tried with full knowledge about the Ad Board's policies and procedures. The Board must make greater efforts to respect the rights of the students who are effectively being tried under its process. For one, The Crimson found that students going through the Ad Board process generally don’t take advantage of the possibility of having an adviser—and even when they do, their advisers may not be well-informed about the process. The first and most straightforward change is to provide students going through the Ad Board process with a trained and knowledgeable advocate who can guide them through the process. It is clear that a students’ Resident Dean cannot be this person. In fact, Resident Deans must make clear to students that they themselves sit on the Ad Board and are not a confidential adviser.


Furthermore, like any true disciplinary process (like the US legal system), the Ad Board must adopt an accepted standard of evidence—“preponderance of the evidence” or “beyond reasonable doubt,” for example—instead of relying on the subjective and undefined “sufficiently persuaded” that the Board uses now. In addition, students who are under evaluation by the Ad Board should be able to hear any discussion that the members of the board have about them, as well as being able to respond in their own defense to the Board’s deliberations. These essential reforms would make the Ad Board function like a fair penal system—as it should be—instead of an unfair and elusive system that pretends to be educational but in actuality simply administers discipline.

The Ad Board process, as framed now, is much more like a trial than a not-for-credit seminar about plagiarism. It would behoove the University to acknowledge this, and to give the students who go before the Board for disciplinary reasons, be they academic or non-academic, the rights anyone should have under a disciplinary system.