Harvard College Investigates Student Academic Misconduct

More than 100 undergraduates are under investigation for exam collaboration or plagiarism.

Harvard College announced today that it is formally investigating allegations that “nearly half the students” in a spring 2012 course “may have inappropriately collaborated on answers, or plagiarized their classmates’ responses, on the final exam” for the class. The announcement—made during the week that freshmen settle in on campus and just before the beginning of fall classes on September 4—is being treated as a very serious violation, on an unprecedented scale, of the institution’s norms of academic integrity: accompanying the College announcement were e-mailed messages from Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean Michael D. Smith to the entire faculty, and from Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris, former master of Cabot House, to the entire student body. (See full texts of the Smith and Harris letters, below.)

According to the announcement, an initial investigation by the Harvard College Administrative Board (the faculty committee that interprets and applies FAS rules to the undergraduate student body, and so serves as FAS’s chief disciplinary organization), “touched off a comprehensive review of the more than 250 take-home final exams submitted at the end of the course. That review has resulted in cases before the Administrative Board involving nearly half the students in the class.”

Harris explained that a teaching fellow observed problematic material in examinations he or she was grading and raised the issue with the course professor, who reviewed them; the professor then brought the issue to the attention of the Administrative Board in May, leading to the initial and now the comprehensive review and the investigations. According to the section on “academic dishonesty” in the Harvard College Handbook for Students (the Handbook), “Students must…comply with the policy on collaboration established for each course, as set forth in the course syllabus or on the course website.…Collaboration in the completion of examinations is always prohibited.”

A Guide to the First Year at Harvard for Students and Their Families, prepared by the Freshman Dean’s Office and distributed to members of the class of 2016 earlier this week, devotes five pages to explaining “Standards and Expectations in Academic Life,” including academic integrity, acknowledging sources, a discussion of the bounds of collaboration, and how to seek further guidance—all part of students’ “willingness to assume thoughtfully the responsibilities which accompany membership in a company of scholars.”

Punishment for violations, if any are determined by the Administrative Board, may be as severe as the requirement that a student withdraw from the College for up to a year, according to the Handbook. (The announcement refers to disciplinary actions for academic dishonesty “including, but not limited to, the requirement to withdraw from the College for a year.” The penalties for such violations do not include permanent dismissal from Harvard.)

Harris noted that the examination explicitly prohibited collaboration among students. Many College classes encourage collaborative work on assignments and problem sets—the terms for faculty members to specify that sort of collaboration in a course syllabus are spelled out in the Office of Undergraduate Education’s course guidance—but Harris said this course did “not to my knowledge” permit such collaborative efforts on earlier student work.

Harris noted that Administrative Board investigations proceed individually, student by student, and that none have been adjudicated so far. The evidence the Board is reviewing, he said, includes “answers that look quite alike to answers that appear to have been lifted in their entirety.” The pattern appears to show “clusters of students who seem to have collaborated,” not any single, unified effort. Given the seriousness and scope of the issue, he said, the College would, at the end of the Administrative Board proceedings (which he characterized as “tak[ing] the time it takes” to investigate this volume of possible infractions individually), disclose their outcome in the aggregate.

The College declined to identify the course or professor, or to specify whether it was a departmental (concentration) course or a General Education offering. Student identities are protected legally. Students from all four class years were enrolled and are involved, Harris said, meaning that some may have graduated. Updated, 8-30-2012 7:30 p.m.: The Crimson is reporting that the course was Government 1310, "Introduction to Congress." Its article is accompanied by a reproduction of the April 26, 2012, instructions for the final examination, with a highlighted passage explicitly stating that "students may not discuss the exam with others." The course was offered by Matthew B. Platt, assistant professor of government. Updated, 9-1-2012 9:00 a.m.Current and former undergraduates are speaking out on the cheating allegations in general and in the context of Government 1310 in particular, as noted in articles in The New York Observer, The Boston Globe, and The Harvard Crimson, among others.

Timing of Announcement, Community Responses

The timing of the disclosure appears to reflect several factors.

First, Harris said, the institution regards the issue of academic integrity as of utmost importance; it is, he said, a “critical value.” In the College statement, Dean Smith said academic integrity “goes to the heart of our educational mission. Academic dishonesty cannot and will not be tolerated at Harvard.” President Drew Faust said in the statement:

These allegations, if proven, represent totally unacceptable behavior that betrays the trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends. We must deal with this fairly and through a deliberative process. At the same time, the scope of the allegations suggests that there is work to be done to ensure that every student at Harvard understands and embraces the values that are fundamental to its community of scholars.

Second, it is the beginning of the academic year, when standards and expectations are and ought to be communicated.

Third, there are practical responses that members of the community can take at the beginning of the semester to clarify policies and practices. In his e-mailed letter to faculty members, Smith asked them “right now” to review the syllabus for each course to ensure that the policy on student collaboration be clearly stated; to discuss it with each class; and to convene with peers and Directors of Undergraduate Studies on measures to “foster a culture of honesty and integrity in our classes and learning assessments.”

Fourth, Harris said, he was at pains to “start a conversation on this” within the community at large, building on work concerning academic integrity begun by his office two years ago (see below).

Finally, of course, it seems likely that with such a large number of students facing Administrative Board investigation, the news would have leaked piecemeal, in one way or another.

Addressing Concerns about Academic Integrity

About two years ago, Harris said, given “a feeling that the landscaped had shifted,” especially as technological tools had altered “how people think of intellectual property,” he began investigating attitudes and behaviors on campus. The College Committee on Academic Integrity (including faculty members, undergraduates, resident deans, and administrators), chaired by Harris, engaged the International Center for Academic Integrity—which was organized in 1992, following earlier survey research on the issue by Donald L. McCabe, a professor at Rutgers Business School—to create an assessment of academic integrity like that it has conducted at other institutions.

The Crimson reported on the student, teaching-fellow, and faculty surveys, then described as an attempt to begin a conversation about attitudes toward and perceptions of plagiarism and cheating, in February 2011. According to the Crimson’s report, data from the Center’s research indicated that

the majority of college professors report having witnessed academic dishonesty in their classes. Eighty-six percent of faculty at universities that have been studied by the organization report…having observed “serious written cheating,” while 70 percent of these professors report that they have seen “serious test/exam cheating.” Nationwide rates of students admitting to cheating are much lower, according to the data. Only 48 percent of students reported that they had engaged in “serious written cheating,” and a mere 22 percent of students admit to having engaged in “serious test/exam cheating.” According to [Center director Teresa] Fishman, most academic institutions have similar rates of cheating.

In October 2011, the Crimson reported that Dean Harris disclosed that the response rate was too low to yield meaningful responses: 27 percent among students, and heavily weighted toward freshmen, who had only one semester in the College at the time of the survey.

Last academic year, the academic-integrity committee focused on “studying honor codes and other mechanisms” to “reinforce the culture of academic integrity,” Harris said—with a goal of making concrete recommendations for FAS deliberation and action this year. (The Crimson reported last spring on Committee on
Undergraduate Education discussions
of measures such as specifying language on course websites outlining collaboration policies, and training House tutors to become more expert in advising on citation practices.) Now, such work will obviously proceed in a different, heightened context.

According to the College announcement, the committee has been “assessing the practices of peer institutions on a range of actions, from the adoption of new ethics policies to the introduction of an honor code.” Among peer institutions, Princeton and Stanford both prominently have student-focused and -administered honor codes and enforcement mechanisms. The Princeton honor code “holds students responsible for academic integrity on campus and governs all submissions of written work, examinations, tests and quizzes.” The Stanford Honor Code “is an undertaking of the students, individually and collectively: that they will not give or receive aid in examinations; that they will not give or receive unpermitted aid in class work, in the preparation of reports, or in any other work that is to be used by the instructor as the basis of grading; that they will do their share and take an active part in seeing to it that others as well as themselves uphold the spirit and letter of the Honor Code.”

Harris noted that honor codes work by “suffusing the culture of the place,” and that educational and other efforts might, themselves, ensure academic integrity even absent a formal code and process for administering it. (The  Crimson editorially endorsed an honor code in  February 2011, during the administration of the academic-integrity survey: “Harvard students would…benefit from having an honor code they would be required to write at the top of every exam.”) To that end, he said, his committee was examining what more might be done to emphasize academic integrity during freshman orientation, in teaching students about proper citations, and so on. “Integrity training has been lacking,” he said. Last year, for instance, such instruction was augmented by inaugurating training in academic integrity in all undergraduate research projects and placements.

Making academic integrity an overriding priority now began with the College announcement, Dean Smith’s letter to faculty members, and Harris’s own letter to students. Among the steps being taken:

  • An Administrative Board staff member has been "tasked with building awareness among faculty and students about Harvard’s academic-integrity policies,” according to the announcement.
  • Harvard will engage the International Center for Academic Integrity and other outside experts as the College initiates a “campuswide discussion about this issue.”
  • College officials will engage House Masters and resident deans to convene House-based conversations on academic integrity.

Harris is meeting with Directors of Undergraduate Studies to promote clear language in each course syllabus and in course assignments regarding collaboration and other issues of academic integrity. University-wide responses remain unspecified at this time.

In his letter to students, Harris said that, beyond familiarizing themselves with Harvard’s pertinent rules (and the respective measures Dean Smith has asked faculty members to take in clarifying practices for each course), “More is necessary.…We must all work together to build a community that fully embraces the ethos of integrity that is the foundation of all learning and discovery. Without integrity, there can be no genuine achievement.”

“It’s a teaching opportunity,” Harris said of the broad investigations of serious undergraduate academic misconduct and the emerging responses. “One we’d rather not have.”

Text of FAS Dean Michael D. Smith's letter to the faculty

As we reconvene on campus this week at the start of a new semester, what it means to be a part of this community— both the privileges and the obligations —is very much on my mind. Scholarship, free inquiry, and academic excellence open unparalleled opportunities for our students, and also presume a commitment to learning, and to the rigors of challenging coursework. They form the foundation on which we do our daily work.

In that context, I am writing to you about a series of allegations concerning academic integrity and student conduct, the implications of which we must discuss as a Faculty.

This Harvard Gazette story [the College announcement, linked above] describes what is currently known and the steps we are taking moving forward, but let me summarize here. At the end of last semester, an instructor found indications that a number of undergraduates in this instructor’s spring class may have committed acts of academic dishonesty on the class’s take-home final exam, ranging from inappropriate collaboration to outright plagiarism.

Per the Faculty’s procedures, the Administrative Board undertook a review of all final exams from the class. I am sorry to report that this careful and comprehensive review found that nearly half of the more than 250 students in the class may have worked together in groups of varying size to develop and/or share answers, even though there was a stated policy against collaboration on the final exam. In the coming weeks, the Administrative Board will meet with each student whose work is in question, seek to understand all the relevant facts, and determine whether any Faculty rules were violated. To date, the Board has come to no judgments. Our commitment to student privacy and due process, as well as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), prohibit us from disclosing the names of students involved.

The fact that the Administrative Board is investigating such a large number of cases from a single class is deeply disturbing. At the same time, we must not forget that the vast majority of our students complete all their assignments honestly, diligently, and in accordance with our regulations and practices. Allegations of inappropriate collaboration and plagiarism in a single class should not be allowed to diminish the good work or reputation of our outstanding student body.

There are important tasks that I would ask that you undertake, right now, as we begin this new semester. Please take a look at your syllabus. As you know, faculty legislation dictates that course policy on collaboration be clearly stated in your syllabi—draft language and assistance is available from the Office of Undergraduate Education. Discuss this policy in your classes. Meet with your Directors of Undergraduate Studies and with each other to share best practices on how we can each foster a culture of honesty and integrity in our classes and learning assessments. Your efforts are essential to our success. 

As the semester gets under way, I appreciate that I can count on you to help our students to grow intellectually and to embody our values and ideals.

Sincerely yours,

Michael D. Smith

Text of Dean of Undergraduate Education Dean Jay Harris's letter to Harvard College students

I am writing to alert you to deeply disturbing allegations of academic dishonesty involving a significant number of Harvard College students, and to remind you of every student’s duty to embrace our ideals regarding, as well as the specific rules governing, academic integrity.

As detailed in this Harvard Gazette story, the College Administrative Board is currently reviewing allegations that students in one spring class may have committed acts of academic dishonesty, ranging from inappropriate collaboration to outright plagiarism, on a take-home final exam. This summer, a careful and comprehensive review by the Administrative Board of every exam from the class found that nearly half of the more than 250 enrolled students may have worked together in groups of varying size to develop and/or share answers.

Every student whose work is under review has already been contacted by the Administrative Board. If you have not been contacted by the Board, your work is not being reviewed by the Administrative Board. [Updated 8-30-12, 3:40 p.m.]

In the coming weeks, the Administrative Board will meet with each student whose work is in question, seek to understand all the relevant facts, and determine whether any Faculty rules were violated. To date, the Board has come to no judgments.

Although no cases have been decided, this alarming set of allegations requires, in our view, a new campus-wide discussion among faculty, students and administrators about academic honesty. As a first step, I ask you today to familiarize yourself with the Student Handbook rules—which were approved by the faculty—regarding collaboration on assignments and all other rules pertaining to academic dishonesty. If you are uncertain how the rules apply in a specific situation, ask a member of the teaching staff. 

Similarly, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith has asked faculty members to review their syllabi to ensure the collaboration policies for their classes are clear, to discuss academic integrity with their students and to work with each other to share best practices.

More is necessary, though, than simply knowing rules and refining practices.   We must all work together to build a community that fully embraces the ethos of integrity that is the foundation of all learning and discovery. Without integrity, there can be no genuine achievement.

To that end, we will, among other measures, work with House Masters and Resident Deans to convene a series of conversations about academic integrity issues in the Houses, taking advantage of Harvard’s unique residential life system to promote House-level dialogue on a community-wide scale.

Harvard takes academic integrity very seriously because it goes to the heart of our educational mission, as Dean Smith has said. Academic dishonesty cannot and will not be tolerated. I join him, President Faust and College Dean Evelynn Hammonds in hoping we can all use today’s news to foster a culture of honesty and integrity in everything we do as members of the Harvard community.

Jay M. Harris

Dean of Undergraduate Education


National coverage of this story now includes articles in The New York Times, Bloomberg, The Boston Globe and the Associated Press. 

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