Poor Harvard! Though well known for being old, rich and famous, its reputation for being well-run and intellectually challenging has taken some serious hits in the last few weeks. Most recently the New York Times has reported that the cheating scandal that has plagued New York City high schools and the admissions offices of lesser universities has broken out in Cambridge where “125 Students May have Cheated on a Final Exam.”

Harper’s magazine (August) set the groundwork for that story in Thomas Frank’s lead article, “A Matter of Degrees,” which contends that American universities “exist in order to man the gates of social class, and we pay our princely tuition rates in order to obtain just one thing, the golden ticket, the capital C Credential.” The question that follows, he says, is, given that the game is rigged, why play by the rules? The answer is that they don’t.

The classic example is the story of Adam Wheeler who cheated his way into Harvard as a transfer student and cheated his way to the top with fake transcripts, fake grades and plagiarized essays. The Ivy League allegedly chooses America’s leaders, but, says Frank, “never has the system for choosing its leaders seemed more worthless. Our ruling class steers us into disaster after disaster, cheering for ruinous wars, getting bamboozled by Enron and Madoff, missing equity bubbles and commodity bubbles. But accountability, it seems, is something that applies only to people at the bottom . . .”

 

The latest mess, Harvard’s “largest cheating scandal in memory,” concerns 125 students who may have worked in groups on a take-home final exam in a government class, Introduction to Congress, where the students were explicitly required to work alone. The lecture course with 279 students enrolled and broken down into 10 discussion groups run by grad students, was taught by an assistant professor, Matthew B. Platt.

A key element in this saga is that the course had a long history for being one of the easiest courses in the university. The professor told the class that they didn’t have to come to the lectures or discussion groups; the grade was based on four take-home exams, graded by the instructors. Proud of his easy grading, Platt proclaimed that he gave out 120 A’s last year and was ready to do it again.

But, according to the publicized student evaluations, this year students were furious that Platt had suddenly made some of the questions hard or confusing. Their response was to continue the traditional practice of cooperating with one another by sharing notes and readings and consulting the teaching fellows. The fellows, who graded the exams, also disagreed on how the questions should be understood.

There will be an investigation, and the students accused complain that everybody was — and always had been — doing it.

The Denver Post (Sept. 1) suggests installing an honor code. USA Today reports that the easiest way to cheat at Harvard is to hide the answers in the bathroom and check them on a visit. With all due respect to my academic colleagues who must use open-book exams on their online courses, this kind of lecture course is not the appropriate context for an open-book exam. Harvard should be ashamed not only because their students broke the rules but because the whole teaching situation violated the standards that should characterize a respected college or university.

Large lecture courses should be taught by senior distinguished faculty, men and women with national reputations who are scholars and original thinkers who should give the last half hour of their 90 minute class to open discussion with the students. If their teaching assistants are going to grade the papers, the professor should double-check every one of the 200 to assure uniformity in the evaluations and spot both rising stars and students who need more help.

A teacher known for his “gut” courses and easy A’s should be dismissed.

Research papers that send the student to the library to open many books in their search for understanding should replace the mid-semester open-book exams. Finally the faculty should administer the final exam in a large room. walking about with eyes open for hidden notes, with space between the tables and all electronic equipment checked at the door.

So Harvard and universities with similar problems have a number of issues to address. If they wants their reputations for academic rigor, as well as integrity, to stand.

Raymond A. Schroth

Comments

JOHN SULLIVAN | 9/4/2012 - 6:47pm
I think the good father takes some delight in this story. From reading news reports it doesn't appear to be as clearcut as some would have it. In any case we shouldn't indict a whole istitution over this incident. It could even happen at a Jesuit school, let's not be holier than thou.
Winifred Holloway | 9/4/2012 - 3:44pm
I do not know how a student in a college class can cheat on a test.  I remember having to commit to memory facts, sequences of events, major time lines, etc. but these by themselves would not have helped me or any student do well on a test.  They were just anchors or organizing priniciples that were tucked away in my brain so that I could write a coherent and persuasive response to a question that required more (much more) than listing factoids.  Squirreling away lists of these factoids in my shoe or in the rest room would have been useless. 
John Barbieri | 9/4/2012 - 3:03pm
Cheating is cheating.
And these students are the best and the brightest?
I can't help but notice the irony that the cheating involved a course about ''government.''
What a shameful episode. 
Vince Killoran | 9/4/2012 - 3:10pm
Take-home final exams are quite common and are useful exercises.  I've moved away from them in the last year because I can't account for students "absorbing" too much of their classmates arguments, strong writing, etc.  

Back to the blue book exam! 
David Cruz-Uribe | 9/4/2012 - 6:44pm
We can take it as given that the faculty member involved will lose his job.  Essentially no assistant professor at Harvard (or Yale or Princeton) gets tenure:  they are a source of "cheap" labor for the university who use their time at these first tier schools to decorate their resumes and go on to careers at lesser institutions.  The instructor's goal during this time is to publish as much as possible so as to maximize his future prospects.  So the big wonder for me is not that this professor was teaching a "gut" course, but rather that he was actually upset enough to press an academic dishonesty case which will consume his time for weeks and do nothing for his future career or the institution.
John Barbieri | 9/4/2012 - 3:03pm
Cheating is cheating.
And these students are the best and the brightest?
I can't help but notice the irony that the cheating involved a course about ''government.''
What a shameful episode. 
Marie Rehbein | 9/4/2012 - 1:59pm
All accounts make me think that the professor is most at fault.  The biggest harm to students, it seems to me, came from the inconsistency resulting from the freedom granted to the teaching assistants in grading. 

The point of any exam in any course is to test whether the individual has grasped the concepts being taught, and it seems that none of the tests in this professors course ever conclusively established whether the individual student had done so.  There was no accountability for having taught and no accountability for content.

The professor deserves to lose his job unless he can show that what his approach was following the dictates of the university.
Kang Dole | 9/4/2012 - 1:18pm
I think it can be taken for granted that a lot of students will cheat without missing a beat or thinking twice, and so it kind of surprises me that an exam for a large lecture class wouldn't be administered in a large room with invigilators (invigilators-not faculty, for god's sake).

"Large lecture courses should be taught by senior distinguished faculty, men and women with national reputations who are scholars and original thinkers who should give the last half hour of their 90 minute class to open discussion with the students. If their teaching assistants are going to grade the papers, the professor should double-check every one of the 200 to assure uniformity in the evaluations and spot both rising stars and students who need more help."

No offense, but rarely is "lol" a more appropriate response than here.