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