Approximately 125 undergraduate students from Harvard University have been accused of using unethical methods to complete a spring take home exam. In what may be the largest Ivy League cheating scandal in recent memory, Harvard University is taking determined action against suspected undergrads that may call for the immediate assistance of legal counsel. Accusations of plagiarism or academic dishonesty can have longstanding effects on an individual’s personal and career goals.
Suspicions of a conspiracy originally rose in May when a teaching fellow noticed striking similarities with many of the tests’ answers to short questions and even essays. The fellow then informed the professor of the class who contacted Harvard’s administrative board, the governing body that monitors student behavior.
None of the answers from students appeared to be blatantly lifted from outside sources. But according to Jay Harris, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education, some students obviously plagiarized or came close enough to suggest collusion. The non-collaboration policy printed on the exam leaves little room for the possibility that any student partnerships were merely oversights. The 125 suspected make up nearly half of the entire class comprised of students from all four levels of college. Some of the accused have already graduated. And though Harris has not confirmed or denied whether any students who are found guilty of cheating will be stripped of their diplomas, he did indicate that Harvard is treating the matter as grave.
The administrative board became concerned enough with the alarming similarities to spend the entire summer interviewing students and combing through and comparing every answer. Those whose tests have been flagged as questionable have been notified and will be appear before the board individually over the next few weeks. Some may be exonerated completely. But a full year of suspension is possible for others. Federal privacy laws preclude Harvard from naming any of the accused or the course in question. But the Harvard Crimson recently identified the class as being ‘Government 1310: Introduction to Congress,’ led by assistant professor Matthew Platt.
The University’s official handbook clearly informs the student body that it “must assume that collaboration in the completion of assignments is prohibited unless explicitly permitted by the instructor. Students must acknowledge any collaboration and its extent in all submitted work.” Interestingly, the handbook also urges professors to clearly explain their collaboration policy in their syllabi, but a current version of Mr. Platt’s syllabus does not.
Harvard has made no plans to investigate any other courses in response to the incident. However, preventive steps are being considered, including establishing an honor code. In the past, such measures have been resisted against and even decried as public shaming. But recent events suggest a need to take assertive action to protect the school’s reputation for high standards and integrity. Though this violation of rules has come as a shock to many, the school has been wrestling with recent concerns of rampant plagiarism. From 2009 – 2010, there were 197 new cases of academic misconduct. 42 of the students involved were suspended and 4 were asked to permanently withdraw from the school. 2010 is also the year Harvard launched an academic integrity committee.
Cheating within the Ivy League goes as far back as to the 1950s when Edward Kennedy was suspended for two years after sending someone to take his Spanish final for him. With the boom of the internet, plagiarism has not only become more common but easier with schools such as Duke and Dartmouth swimming through hundreds of pages for evidence or suspending dozens of students. Some professors say the problem of shrinking integrity within academics has reach international proportions.
Understanding and defining what is and is not plagiarism can be complicated. And the legal ramifications of culpability can be severe. If you have any questions or concerns about accusations of plagiarism or cheating, please feel free to contact Altman and Altman at any time. Our counselors have years of experience with this particular matter.