Bloomberg News

Harvard Students Fighting Allegations of Cheating on Exam

September 04, 2012

Harvard Students Fighting Allegations of Cheating on Final Exam

A Harvard University sweatshirt in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photographer: Michael Fein/Bloomberg

Harvard University students under investigation for cheating on a take-home government course exam said they’re waging a battle against the allegations.

About 20 students and graduates have gone to the media to tell their side of the story, saying skipping classes, sharing notes and collaborating on tests were all tacitly condoned by the professor and teaching fellows of the course being probed, students who took the class said.

The probe involves about 125 students over cheating on a take-home exam for the course, called Introduction to Congress. Harvard officials called it the biggest such probe in living memory. The students who are talking said they want to remain anonymous because of concern the accusations could affect their degrees or jobs taken since graduating. One 2012 graduate said losing his bachelor’s degree in economics might cost him his position at a Wall Street finance firm.

“Harvard went public with their version of the story, the version that looks good for the school,” a Harvard senior said. “We’re trying to present the other side.”

A Harvard e-mail to the 2012 graduate previewed his hearing before the Administrative Board, a college disciplinary body, for cheating on the final exam. The process of responding to a complaint to the board takes about two weeks, according to the letter.

‘Very Unfair’

“There was a tone set by the nature of the class and the professor teaching the course that collaboration was OK,” the graduate said in a telephone interview. “Dragging us into this investigation now, when we have financial obligations and jobs, seems very unfair.”

Harvard said last week that each of the students and graduates under investigation will be called before the Administrative Board. Students found to have cheated on exams can be asked to withdraw for two semesters, or may receive a warning or be put on probation, Jay Harris, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education, said in an interview last week. Some students may be exonerated, Harris said. He wouldn’t say whether the board would consider taking away graduates’ degrees.

No cases have been heard yet, Harris said. Officials declined to say which course the students were in because the board’s proceedings are confidential. Students and graduates are also prohibited from discussing their cases in public, he said.

Students said the course in question was “Introduction to Congress,” which had 279 enrolled in the semester ending in May. Freshmen through seniors were all represented in the class taught by Matthew Platt, an assistant professor. He declined to comment when reached by telephone last week and didn’t respond to a call yesterday.

Suspicious Similarities

Harvard is investigating whether the students inappropriately collaborated on the take-home exam, Harris said. A teaching fellow in the course noticed in May that many of the turned-in exams contained suspicious similarities, and an analysis of all the course’s exams led to the Administrative Board actions, he said.

“Academic integrity is very important at Harvard, as are fairness and due process,” Jeff Neal, a spokesman for Harvard said in an e-mail. “We expect to learn more about the way the course was organized and how work was approached in class and on the take-home final,” and the process will “take time and require patience,” he said.

Platt is known as a good lecturer who kept the course entertaining, said a senior who took the course and wanted to remain anonymous. The course is widely considered to be easy, the senior said.

‘120 A’s’

“Platt said, ‘I gave out 120 A’s last year and I’ll give out 120 A’s this year,”’ the senior said. “I’m taking a lot of difficult courses, so I take my A’s where I can get them.”

Platt said in class that he didn’t mind whether lectures were skipped, the students said. Students frequently shared lecture notes, which probably contributed to the similarities in people’s answers, those who took the course said.

“That’s how people understood this course worked,” the senior said.

Platt’s exam instructions say that “students may not discuss the exam with others -- this includes resident tutors, writing centers, etc.” That contradicts the way the course was actually conducted, students said.

Students consult Harvard’s Q guide to get previous course- takers’ reviews. Q guide reviews say that collaboration was accepted in Platt’s course, students said.

Student Reviews

“There’s a quote in the Q guide that says that the morning before an exam, there were about 15 students in the teaching fellow’s office, working together on an exam with the help of the teaching fellow,” said the graduate.

One student’s 2010 course evaluation reads: “An awesome class which is not very time consuming, isn’t particularly difficult and that has very interesting lectures.”

The nature of take-home exams may lead some students to collaborate in ways that break the rules, said Lisa Wang, a Harvard junior majoring in government.

“The investigation is justified because the exam said not to consult anyone, but I also think that take-home exams in general are a bad idea for college courses,” Wang, a research assistant for Platt, said in an interview. “People definitely follow the rules during” classroom exams, she said. “It’s really the take-home exams that are an issue.”

Standards for what is acceptable and what is plagiarism are usually spelled out at the beginning of exams, and teachers at Harvard are told to be aware of plagiarism and cheating in their classes and report it when it occurs, said Sadaf Jaffer, a Harvard doctoral student in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations who worked as a teaching fellow for three years. Cheating isn’t more common at Harvard than elsewhere, she said.

“The repercussion is a reminder that students have to be careful about collaboration, especially in a gray area,” she said in a telephone interview.

To contact the reporter on this story: John Lauerman in Boston at jlauerman@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Lisa Wolfson at lwolfson@bloomberg.net


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