As mentioned yesterday, in my “mini-blog”, Harvard University is investigating 125 undergraduates who are suspected of cheating on a spring take-home final exam. It is the largest cheating scandal in recent memory to hit the university.

Any allegation of cheating in any way is a serious thing, of course. However, in an institution like Harvard University, it takes on the air of scandal as well.

Nearly half the students in a class of more than 250 are suspected of jointly coming up with answers or copying off one another, said Jay Harris, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education. Independent groups of students appear to have worked together by e-mail or other means on responses to short questions and an essay assignment, violating a no-collaboration policy that was printed on the exam itself.

A teaching fellow noticed the similarities in May while grading a subset of the exams. He alerted the professor, who approached the college’s Administrative Board, the body that oversees student behavior. The board was worried enough to spend the summer interviewing some of the students and reviewing every exam in the class.

The students whose tests were flagged as problematic — nearly two percent of the college’s 6,700-some undergraduates — have now been notified and will appear before the board individually in the next few weeks, Harris said. Some may be exonerated, but those found guilty could face a range of punishments.

Because the course included students from all four class years, some of the accused may have graduated already. Harris would not comment on whether they would be at risk of losing their diplomas.

He explained, “this is something we take really, really seriously.”

In Harvard’s student handbook, students are specifically instructed to “assume that collaboration in the completion of assignments is prohibited unless explicitly permitted by the instructor.”

Ironically, last year, the university introduced a voluntary freshman pledge to uphold basic values such as “integrity, respect, and industry.” The pledge was derided on and off campus by professors and public intellectuals who considered it unscholarly. This year, the pledge was said to have been scrapped.

In response to the cheating allegations, Harvard administrators plan to explore new ways of educating students about academic norms. This will not be totally new as this effort had already intensified in the last two years due to fears that plagiarism was becoming rampant, especially given the ease of copying via the Internet.

Students have “clearly shifting attitudes toward the whole idea of intellectual property and what’s involved in moving bits and pixels around. … ” said Harris. “This is not a unique student problem. It’s certainly not a Harvard problem. It’s a national and international problem.”

Attorney Sam’s Take On Students And Academic Discipline

When we left off yesterday, the question of whether plagiarism, or cheating on exams in general, are actually Massachusetts crimes.

They are not technically crimes. The police are not going to come out and arrest a student for these infractions. However, this does not really make them any less serious.

One would imagine that students in higher academic institutions, particularly at schools like Harvard University, have a huge stake in their academic success and the future they hope it will bring.

A finding that a student has committed such an infraction can dash those hopes irretrievably.

While the results of such a finding may not find its way to a student’s criminal record, it will be reflected in the academic record which will be there for future schools to see. Further, it can result in a student’s inability to finish school…either altogether or at the institution of their choosing.

While not technically a crime in the Commonwealth, there are certain similarities about which you should be aware.

First of all, the scandal, like a high-profile criminal investigation, brings a lot of attention…and that means pressure. Pressure for the police in a criminal case and, in a case like this, a lot of pressure on the school and its investigators. The pressure is twofold.

In such a circumstance, the individuals (their interests and rights) often fall by the wayside. In fact, in an academic investigation like this, the accused is afforded far fewer rights than in a criminal investigation.

Second of all, students will not always know when they are being investigated…such as in the case with criminal investigations. In fact, in this case it would appear that not all those targeted were aware of the investigation which took place this summer.

Third, students, like the rest of us, seek to find a way to avoid watching their future plans go up in smoke. In a case such as this, where the school believes there was basically a conspiracy, it is quite possible for suspects to “turn on” each other. In other words, tell the investigators what they want to hear and implicate others students…whether or not they were actually involved…in order to receive some kind of leniency.

This, of course, should be particularly obvious. A lot of pressure is put on students by many folks…not the least of which are parents who have spent a great deal of money and have a large investment in their child’s future…to achieve their intended future.

It is not a far leap to jump from cheating to lying, after all.

I have handled a variety of matters which involve academic repercussions for alleged misdeeds in high school through graduate school levels. The higher you go, the heavier the stakes.

Like any criminal investigation, it is important for the accused to take the allegations seriously and not simply try to “out-wit” the investigators. The best thing one can do is to retain experienced counsel to guide that student through what promises to be a very difficult process.

If you would like to read the original story upon which today’s blog is based, please go to http://www.boston.com/metrodesk/2012/08/30/harvard-investigates-students-for-cheating-final-exam/xA95LyxfyT2uKICbrNUjcO/story.html

Last night, you may have seen me on the WBZ-TV Eleven O’clock News discussing the latest scandal involving Boston’s Police Lab. We will deal with that on Monday’s Blog. Seems appropriate somehow for Labor Day since it involves the ending of someone’s employment.

In the meantime, have a great, safe and law-abiding weekend!

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