Harvard, Know Thyself

09/17/2012 09:36 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2012

I doubt the "cheating scandal" at Harvard -- in which about 125 students were rounded up for allegedly sharing answers to an open-book take-home exam -- will teach us much about the grand moral themes raised in several recent commentaries. For example, I don't think we will learn much about the intellectual-property ethics of youth in the era of the Internet, since so many accused students seem not to have emailed or copied their answers verbatim, but simply talked to each other the way students have talked for centuries.

A cheap and easy response would be for Harvard to protect its faculty by reserving blame for its students. Professors, who would have to approve any changes to the academic integrity policy, learned by reading the Gazette (Harvard's sugar-coated official publicity organ) that the university may respond to the scandal by instituting an honor code. The honor code would, of course, be for students, not for professors such as those who have committed plagiarism or fraud and remain active members of the faculty -- and indeed, international celebrities.

Professors probably won't take the obvious but unmentioned lessons about their own professional conduct. That if you announce in the first lecture that you plan to give a lot of As and that nobody needs to show up for class, word will get around among students who have heavy nonacademic time commitments, and some students may not take your course as seriously as they might otherwise. That if your teaching assistants meet with students in groups while your take-home exam is going on and provide helpful advice for everyone to hear about whether proposed answers are right, students might be led to conclude that the "no collaboration" directive, like a 60 mph speed limit sign, doesn't in practice mean all of what it says. That if on top of all that, your take-home exam confuses students and is available for more than a week, some dinner-table conversations are likely to result.

The university administration will now be challenged to ask itself what it must already have wondered: whether evaluating junior faculty on the basis of how much students like them creates perverse incentives. A study done years ago by Harvard psychologists showed that student evaluations of their professors correlate highly with what other observers, who knew nothing about the course, thought after watching 30 seconds of video of the professor lecturing -- with the sound off. And yet those course evaluation scores still go into tenure dossiers.

A terrible and damaging result would be for students to learn the wrong thing -- that they shouldn't study together because if they do, their similar responses on a paper may raise suspicion. That would sad and ironic, because Harvard is elsewhere putting a lot of stress on collaborative education (see, for example, Reinventing the Classroom). Harvard goes out of its way to encourage students to form study groups -- too many students, including many of the excellent students Harvard is now admitting from less advantaged backgrounds, mistakenly think that the right way to learn is to close the door and stare at the textbook. Campus buzz now suggests the emergence of a "fear of cheating" culture -- students who came to Harvard because they wanted to be able to talk over dinner about something other than sports and their social lives now worry that if they talk about their coursework with their friends, the similarities between their thoughts will get noticed when hundreds of student papers are compared to each other. Better to play it safe and talk about TV shows than to risk an intellectual conversation that might stick.

We can hope that an open, honest, candid conversation about all this will happen at Harvard -- that would require real institutional courage. In an university that so values individual responsibility and freedom, both professors' and students', it will not be easy to talk to each other about lines that need to be drawn or have already been crossed, with lawyers and public relations czars hovering over every word that gets said.

My best hope is that even if others learn little, the disciplinary board will remain -- as it historically has been -- unaffected by all the glare, and will take the cases in context and on their individual merits, insensitive to what pundits think the decisions signify about Harvard's athletic ambitions or culture of integrity. Reportedly, the professor turned in about a dozen students because he noticed that their papers contained identical typographical errors, smoking-gun evidence of blatant copying. Those students would, I imagine, quite appropriately be rusticated for a year. The other similarities apparently were not discovered until an investigator compared all 279 exam papers to each other. Harvard's President Drew Faust suggested to the Washington Post that the Administrative Board may respond with nuance. Even though about 125 students have been charged, she said she thinks the Board will "exonerate some number of these students." I hope she is right. In fact, I hope that number will be large.

Harry Lewis is Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science at Harvard, where he served for eight years as Dean of Harvard College and chair of the Administrative Board. He is the author of Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? (PublicAffairs, 2007). Visit his blog: Bits and Pieces.

Follow Harry R. Lewis on Twitter @HarryRoyLewis

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