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Matthew Platt, Instructor at Center of Cheating Scandal, Now Off the Tenure Track

By Matthew Q. Clarida and Nicholas P. Fandos, Crimson Staff Writers

Matthew B. Platt, the assistant professor whose spring 2012 course Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress” was at the center of what is believed to be the largest cheating case in Harvard’s history, has not been promoted to associate professor after a routine tenure-track review, a senior member of the Government Department confirmed Tuesday.

Platt, whose scholarship concerns racial issues surrounding political agenda setting, will remain in the department until the end of the academic year when his current appointment expires, according to the source. Typically, assistant professors who are not offered promotion are given a year or more to search for a position outside of the Harvard tenure track before being forced to leave the University, in accordance with the normal procedures of the tenure track.

The source, who, like all tenured members of a given department, is involved in internal reviews of junior faculty as they seek promotion, requested anonymity due to the confidential nature of personnel decisions.

It is unclear whether the decision to remove Platt from the tenure track is connected to his involvement in the Government 1310 case, in which about 125 undergraduates were investigated and dozens punished for allegations of cheating on Platt’s take-home final exam. Tenure-track reviews are typically based on a candidate’s scholarly work and teaching ability, with the former receiving slightly more weight in decision-making.

The New York Times first reported that Platt was not given a promotion on Monday.

Platt did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the decision on Tuesday, and several members of the Government Department involved in the review declined to comment. Jeff Neal, a Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson, also declined to comment.

“We cannot comment on the grounds for this decision, which under Harvard University policy about personnel matters remain strictly confidential,” the senior Government Department member told The Crimson.

The senior professor would not specify when the promotion review occurred, though traditionally assistant professors are put up for promotion in the fourth or fifth year of their appointment. If they gain the support of their department and of the FAS-wide Committee on Appointments and Promotions, assistant professors are then promoted to associate professors and continue on the tenure track.

Platt is entering his sixth year as an assistant professor, meaning that if the traditional timing for tenure decisions adhered in his case, he would have been up for promotion review during either the 2011-2012 or 2012-2013 academic year.

Platt and his spring 2012 offering of Government 1310 were launched into the national spotlight at the end of August 2012, when Harvard took the unusual step of publicly announcing its investigation into an incident of widespread cheating that Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris called “unprecedented in anyone’s living memory.” Students were accused of inappropriately collaborating or copying answers, but many said in media reports that teaching fellows encouraged them to work together.

In the months following the announcement, nearly half of the 279 students enrolled in the course were investigated by the Administrative Board and roughly 70 were forced to temporarily withdraw from the College. While the adjudication of those cases took place behind closed doors throughout the fall semester, periodic breaches of confidentiality kept the case—and a number of undergraduate athletes under investigation—in the news.

But as his course and former students came under close scrutiny and other faculty members throughout FAS modified their own courses, Platt remained quiet. He did not teach any courses as the scandal unfolded in fall 2012, and his scheduled offering of Government 1310 this past spring was cancelled. He did, however, teach an undergraduate government seminar in the spring, which enrolled just three students and was not listed among other course evaluations in the Q Guide. As the case unfolded, he repeatedly declined requests for comment or interviews with The Crimson and other news outlets.

Platt arrived at Harvard in August 2008, the same month he earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Rochester. He wrote his dissertation on the evolution of agenda setting in the black political community after World War II. In his first semester at Harvard, he taught a small seminar in the Government Department on race and representation in Congress, a dominant thread in Platt’s research and teaching.

When Platt first taught Government 1310 in spring 2010, students who evaluated the course on the Q Guide gave the course, and Platt, reviews near the average for the social sciences. Student reviews praised Platt for his effective lectures and his accessibility outside the classroom, but they also noted that it was not a particularly difficult class.

The consistently well-enrolled course, which Platt taught again the following year, also gained a reputation for its lack of difficulty and its collaborative atmosphere; the reading assignments were usually fewer than 100 pages a week, and participation was not graded. Students’ grades were calculated solely based on their scores on four equally weighted take-home essay exams.

As Platt prepared to teach the course for a third time in spring 2012, however, he introduced a major change to the syllabus. Platt would still grade students exclusively on their take-home exam scores, but he altered the format of the tests, using more short-answer and multi-part questions, many of which were less open-ended than the prompts of the previous format. Even before the cheating investigation was announced, students reacted harshly to the change, criticizing the class in their Q Guide reviews submitted at the end of spring 2012. The course’s overall Q Guide rating also fell to 2.67 out of 5 possible points, far below the previous year’s figure of 3.57 and the average among social sciences courses, 3.93.

The announcement of the scandal caused ripples that lasted throughout the last academic year. Professors emphasized collaboration policies on their syllabi, the Committee on Academic Integrity proposed the College’s first-ever honor code, and administrators held town-hall meetings soliciting student feedback on the academic culture at Harvard.

Now, with the students forced to take last year off for their involvement in the case back on campus, Platt is not teaching this semester. He is, however, scheduled to teach two spring government seminarsone for undergraduates and another for graduate studentswhich are expected to be his last at Harvard.

He says on his website that at the moment, “most of my time” is spent working on a book examining black congressional leaders and policy since Reconstruction, currently titled “From Trailblazers to Tokens.”

—Staff writer Matthew Q. Clarida can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MattClarida.

—Staff writer Nicholas P. Fandos can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @npfandos.

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