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Thomas G. Stemberg ’71, founder of the retail chain Staples and a prominent supporter of the Harvard mens’ basketball program, characterized the College’s handling of the Government 1310 cheating scandal as “Orwellian” in a personal letter addressed to University President Drew G. Faust.
In the letter, whose greeting read, “Dear Drew,” Stemberg leveled a harsh rebuke at the academic dishonesty investigation that brought down the two co-captains of a Harvard team with NCAA tournament prospects.
“Over 40 years as a student, an alumnus, and Harvard parent, I have never seen the need to write a letter of complaint,” Stemberg wrote in the opening line of his letter. “However, the University’s approach to and handling of the so-called ‘Congress’ cheating scandal compels me to write one.”
Stemberg declined to comment on the letter, which was dated Jan. 6 and obtained by The Crimson earlier this week. Stemberg’s criticism emerges near the close of an investigation that has ensnared about 125 students accused of inappropriately collaborating on a take-home final exam in the spring course Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress.”
Harvard announced the massive cheating case at the end of August, and last week a Harvard spokesperson said that the College would make an announcement about the results of the case near the start of the spring semester.
In addition to sending his letter to Faust, Stemberg sent copies to Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith, Executive Director of the Harvard Alumni Association John P. Reardon, Jr. ’60, and members of the Harvard Corporation. All declined to comment on this article.
Harvard Director of News and Media Relations Kevin Galvin declined to comment on the correspondence on behalf of Faust.
Stemberg is listed on gocrimson.com as a co-chair of the Friends of Harvard Basketball, an organization of alumni that fundraises for the team.
He played a major role in revamping Harvard’s basketball program after former head coach Frank Sullivan was let go in 2007. With other alumni donors, he helped finance a salary increase to recruit current head basketball coach Tommy Amaker, who led the Crimson to its first March Madness appearance in 66 years last season. Star players Kyle D. Casey ’13 and Brandyn T. Curry ’13, who were instrumental in the team’s success last year, were named co-captains of the squad and expected by some to lead the Crimson to a third straight Ivy title this season.
But their prospects were derailed by Harvard’s Government 1310 investigation. Media outlets reported in September that both chose to withdraw from the College to minimize NCAA eligibility penalties as they awaited possible disciplinary consequences resulting from the scandal.
Stemberg wrote that he personally knows some of the approximately 125 accused students. In his letter, Stemberg classified the students embroiled in the scandal into two different categories: those who “clearly went too far, literally cutting and pasting their answers,” and those who “did no more than write answers from notes that were derived in the collaborative atmosphere the class encouraged.”
Stemberg slammed the University for dolling out the same punishment to both groups, dragging students “through a seemingly endless judicial process.” That process, Stemberg wrote, “damag[ed] the educational experience and the reputation of scores of innocent students.”
Stemberg also excoriated the way that assistant government professor Matthew B. Platt organized Government 1310, writing that the structure of the class confused students and contributed to the scope of the scandal.
“We had a professor who, like many the Faculty of Arts and Sciences assigns to teach undergraduates, was clearly not qualified to do so,” he wrote. At press time, Platt could not be reached for comment.
According to Stemberg, Platt’s inconsistent instructions left many confused about the course’ s collaboration policy.
“If the message [that collaboration was not allowed] was so clearly expressed, why did some of the teaching fellows go over the exam in open session, a per se violation of the professor’s seeming intent?” Stemberg wrote. “If they did not get the message, could one expect the students to understand it?”
Stemberg also wrote that his dissatisfaction with the way the scandal was handled was informed by discussion with two former Deans of the College.
Harry R. Lewis ’68, dean of the College from 1995 to 2003, has criticized the College’s handling of the investigation in several articles and blog posts. In an interview with The Crimson, Lewis said that he and Stemberg commiserated about the scandal when passing each other at their courtside seats at Harvard basketball games this season.
“He read my Huffington Post piece,” Lewis said. “The first time he walked past me, he kind of threw up his hands.”
Lewis said he is disappointed that the scandal has not resulted in a University-wide conversation about the policies and culture surrounding undergraduate teaching at Harvard.
“I continue to be principally troubled that we’re not having, haven’t had yet, and there’s no indication that we’re going to have, a faculty conversation about how faculty conduct their courses,” he said.
Lewis echoed Stemberg’s complaint that the organization of the course, seen by many students as an easy ‘A’, fostered confusion about the limits of appropriate collaboration.
“How is it that hundreds of students knew the way this course was run, and nobody in the Government department knew or if they did know why didn’t anybody stop it from happening?” Lewis said. “When the course is sufficiently lax about its own standards, in 125 alleged cases of overlapping language, it’s very hard to figure out what everybody’s good faith expectations were about they were supposed to do.”
For his part, Stemberg saw little evidence of “good faith” on the side of Harvard administrators.
He sounded a note of dismay in the closing line of his letter: “As an alumnus, how can one come to any conclusion other than the University has a bloated bureaucracy so intent on being politically correct, that its students and its mission are forgotten?”
—Staff writer Elizabeth S. Auritt can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Jared T. Lucky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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