Investigating Academic Misconduct

Jay Harris

On August 30—just before fall classes began on September 4—Harvard College announced that it was 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….” Given the potentially serious violation of academic norms on an unprecedented scale, the statement was accompanied by e-mailed messages from Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean Michael D. Smith to the faculty, and from dean of undergraduate education Jay M. Harris to the student body. (Read their letters here.)

According to the announcement, an initial investigation by the College’s Administrative Board (the committee that interprets and applies FAS rules to undergraduates, and so serves as FAS’s chief disciplinary organization) “touched off a comprehensive review” of the more than 250 take-home final exams submitted. That review resulted in cases before the Ad Board “involving nearly half the students in the class.” (Dean Smith and President Drew Faust are ex officio members.) In a briefing, Harris explained that a teaching fellow observed problematic material while grading exams and raised the issue with the course professor; the professor then reviewed the exams and brought the issue to the attention of the board in May, prompting a comprehensive investigation. According to the section on “academic dishonesty” in the Harvard College Handbook for Students, “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.” Punishment for violations, if any are determined by the board, may be as severe as the requirement that a student withdraw from the College for up to a year.

Harris noted that the examination explicitly prohibited collaboration among students. Many College classes encourage students to work together on assignments and problem sets (the Office of Undergraduate Education sets out how faculty members may specify that sort of collaboration in a course syllabus), but Harris said this course did “not to my knowledge” permit such efforts on earlier student work.

He observed that board investigations proceed individually, student by student, and that none had been adjudicated as of the announcement. The evidence, 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 board’s proceedings (which he characterized as “tak[ing] the time it takes” to investigate, given the numbers), disclose their outcome in the aggregate.

The College declined to identify the course or professor. Student identities are protected legally, but Harris said undergraduates from all four class years were involved, —meaning some had graduated.

The timing of the disclosure appeared to reflect several factors. First, Harris said, a “critical value” was at stake. 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 Faust stated, “These allegations, if proven, represent totally unacceptable behavior that betrays the trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends.…[T]he 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 came at the beginning of the academic year, when standards and expectations were being communicated, and practical steps could be taken. In his e-mail, Smith asked faculty members to review each syllabus “right now” to ensure that the policy on student collaboration was clearly stated; to discuss it with each class; and to convene with peers and departmental directors of undergraduate studies on measures to “foster a culture of honesty and integrity in our classes and learning assessments.” 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, with so many students facing investigation, the news would have spread anyway.

The disclosure sparked news coverage worldwide—much of it informed by the Crimson’s thorough, enterprising legwork. Later that day, the paper reported that the course was Government 1310, “Introduction to Congress,” taught by assistant professor of government Matthew B. Platt. Its article was accompanied by a reproduction of the April 26, 2012, instructions for the take-home final examination, with a highlighted passage explicitly stating that “students may not discuss the exam with others.”

As the confidential Ad Board reviews proceeded, several strands of discussion emerged.

  • Some students said they were not surprised by the allegations, and rumors circulated that the undergraduates involved included members of varsity athletic teams, or various social organizations, allegedly attracted by the course’s undemanding reputation, structure (four take-home exams), and relatively easy grading. The Crimson reported that athletes who were subject to investigation might voluntarily withdraw from the College before their sports began, to preserve a year of eligibility. Several reports identified at least three varsity athletes who may have done so. Head football coach Tim Murphy spent part of his first postgame news conference of the season addressing the issue (see “Powering Through”).
  • Another theme was the nature of collaboration and student understanding of the rules of academic conduct. The Gov 1310 exam, while prohibiting discussion with others, also explicitly said it was “open book, open note, open Internet, etc.” Students regularly form study groups and, as the handbook language suggests, are often encouraged to collaborate in various ways (excluding examinations). Teaching fellows hold common question-and-answer sessions. Meanwhile, professors circulate and post more lecture notes and videos online, giving students identical sources on which to draw. More generally, the rise of Internet-assisted research has made it easier to make honest mistakes of attribution—or plagiarize. The Ad Board thus faces the exacting task of sorting out cases of outright copying or plagiarism and impermissible collaboration (if any are proven) from permissible joint work, casual conversations, or reliance on common sources (complicated by the timing issues—before versus during the eight-day period for the take-home exam—and likely less than definitive evidence).

    When he announced the investigation, Harris said that about two years before, given “a feeling that the landscape had shifted,” especially as technological tools had altered “how people think of intellectual property,” he had begun studying attitudes and behaviors on campus. The College Committee on Academic Integrity, which he chairs—including faculty members, undergraduates, resident deans, and administrators—engaged the International Center for Academic Integrity to create an assessment of academic integrity like those it has conducted elsewhere. Student, teaching-fellow, and faculty surveys were disseminated in February 2011. But that October, the Crimson reported that Harris disclosed that the response rate was too low to yield meaningful responses: 27 percent among students, and heavily weighted toward freshmen, who had spent only one semester in the College at the time.

  • Most broadly, the investigation prompted questions about undergraduate teaching. What expectations about their courses do professor signal? How was it even possible for half the students in a large class to come under suspicion? For scheduling reasons, the FAS in 2010 instituted a procedure reversing the historic default that courses conclude with sit-down, in-class final exams—was that educationally warranted, and are the terms and conditions of take-home finals regulated clearly and applied consistently?

Fundamental questions like these—about the educational value of collaborative learning, proper pedagogy, and the nature of academic assessment—lie far outside the Administrative Board proceeedings.

In his August 30 briefing, before these broader speculations unspooled, Dean Harris said of the formal misconduct investigation, “It’s a teaching opportunity. One we’d rather not have.”

Near term, that teaching opportunity has seemingly been circumscribed by the Administrative Board process: the requirement that more than 100 time-consuming, individual cases be handled confidentially.

Harvard College dean Evelynn Hammonds, who chairs the board, decided against teaching a planned course this semester, in part because of the investigation. President Faust omitted any mention of the issue in two of her formal beginning-of-term communications: the first Morning Prayers in Memorial Church, on September 4 (she focused on the newly appointed Pusey Minister, Jonathan L. Walton); and her customary annual message to the community at the outset of a new academic year (see On the afternoon of September 4, at the celebratory Freshman Convocation—before an audience obviously not involved in whatever may have gone awry last spring—she touched on the stakes, quoting a sentence from Dean Harris’s e-mail (“Without integrity, there can be no genuine achievement”) and adding her own gloss (“That is what each of us owes to Harvard, but, far more importantly, it is what each of us owes to ourselves”).

The Crimson apart, formal community conversation was strikingly absent. Neither administrators nor faculty members convened public discussions of academic integrity with students—and students don’t appear to have organized such sessions, either. The latter point matters, because last academic year the academic-integrity committee focused on “studying honor codes and other mechanisms” to “reinforce the culture of academic integrity,” Harris said. Effective honor codes have historically emanated from students themselves—and must, if they are to succeed.

Now, his committee’s work will obviously proceed in a heightened context, as it aims to make concrete recommendations for FAS deliberation and action this year. 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.” Princeton and Stanford have student-focused and -administered honor codes and enforcement mechanisms. The Stanford Honor Code, for example, “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 ensure academic integrity even absent a formal code and process for administering it. (A Crimson editorial endorsed an examination honor code in February 2011, during the academic-integrity survey.) 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.

Formal steps toward making academic integrity an overriding priority have now begun with the College announcement, Smith’s letter to faculty members, and Harris’s own letter to students. Among other actions taken:

  • An Ad Board staff member has been “tasked with building awareness among faculty and students about Harvard’s academic-integrity policies.”
  • 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 onversations on academic integrity—apparently after the Ad Board acts.
  • Harris met 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 press time.

Faust, Smith, and Harris put these steps in context at the first FAS meeting of the year, on October 2. Faust outlined general principles of academic conduct, and urged caution in commenting while the Ad Board deliberates. Smith reviewed the board’s pedagogical role, and outlined a broader agenda for FAS to consider teaching practices and communications about expectations and academic values; he then turned the floor over to Harris, who is the point person on the whole cluster of issues, for a more detailed outline of research and potential FAS actions during the year. For a full report on their remarks, see

In his August letter to students, Harris said that, beyond familiarizing themselves with Harvard’s pertinent rules (and the respective measures Smith has asked faculty members to take in clarifying their own course practices), “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.”

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