Some may argue that the Harvard University cheating scandal is getting too much coverage in the press, given recent polls that show that between 78-95% of American college students admit to cheating. But this scandal is substantively different, because Harvard itself represents something different in our education system. There are many colleges that offer an education equal to or even surpassing that offered by Harvard University: Princeton, for example, regularly holds the #1 spot on many lists, while Stanford, Yale, MIT, and many other schools compete with Harvard for prestige.
But Harvard is more than a college. It’s also an exclusive brand that, from the university to its medical-school affiliated hospitals, has been an exemplar of top-flight intellectual achievement since its founding in 1636 as the first institution of higher education in the American colonies. This reputation means that what happens at Harvard doesn’t stay at Harvard. It speaks around the world for our entire national higher education system. Harvard is to the United States what Oxford and Cambridge are to the UK and the Sorbonne is to France. And that makes this scandal something all of us in higher education need to be concerned about.
Timeline of Events
Since August, Harvard has been in the throes of some agonizing self-examination, ever since the discovery that about half the students in the legendarily easy “Introduction to Congress” course may have cheated. The following timeline indicates some of the major events and the college’s response to the scandal:
- August 30, 2012: Harvard announced it was investigating possible cheating and plagiarism on a final exam in one of their courses after similarities in over 100 exam answers are discovered.
- August 31, 2012: The name of the course, Introduction to Congress, is identified on various websites by students involved in the investigation. The New York Times reports that “Harvard students in cheating scandal say collaboration was accepted” and publicly criticized the professor, teaching fellows, and design of the course. Though many students-those who indicated that they attended class, read the assigned materials, and studied-defended the course, others complained that the exams were designed to “trick” them and that it wasn’t fair that the course had been so easy in the past and was suddenly more difficult.
- August 15, 2012: Harvard hired Brett Flehinger, history department lecturer and resident dean of Lowell House, to be in charge of a new initiative focused on academic integrity at the college.
- September 13, 2012: Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust said that even though some athletes are involved in the scandal, She further said about the investigation that “it will, I expect, exonerate some number of these students. The process itself, and our fidelity to this process — which transcends this incident … that process is operating here, and it’s consistent with how it is always executed, and it is meant to affirm a set of standards we uphold for all our students.”
Squandered Opportunities an Old Story at Harvard?
When I first heard about the Harvard cheating scandal, I was immediately reminded of something that happened during a stand-up comedian’s 1996 show at the fabled university. While interacting with the audience, Paula Poundstone quizzed a female student on the classes she had attended that day. When she asked who taught the course, the student had no idea and was forced to call her roommate to find out. I thought it odd that a student would not even know the name of her own professor, but it was when I heard the name of the professor that I nearly fainted: Sacvan Bercovitch. This privileged student did not even know that she was taking a course with a world famous and award-winning literature scholar that I would have done anything to study with.
At the time, I was working on my doctorate and I was furious. It seemed to me that this student had squandered an opportunity that thousands would have better appreciated. I was then, and still am, appalled at what this says about some Harvard students–and what it, in turn, also says about recent generations of college students in general. It seems that they take their opportunities for granted.
When I read the students’ own claims of innocence regarding the current cheating allegations, including those that argue that copying notes from each other and using them on take-home exams that did not allow collaboration was not cheating, I think again about squandered opportunities. These students are luckier than most because they attend a college that has gathered together great intellects, is fully-funded, and maintains some of the best archives, laboratories, and other facilities in the world. Yet they seem disregard these very privileges.
Why it Matters
Of course, cheating isn’t a problem limited to prestigious institutions like Harvard. There are many infamous cheating scandals in higher education history. There’s no shortage of cheating scandals lately, either. For example, in 2010, the University of Central Florida was rocked when professor Richard Quinn publicly accused his students of cheating, generating an infamous viral video. At the community college where I teach, I caught a student using his cell phone to look up answers during last spring’s midterm exams. No school is immune to such activities on the part of students, because there is just as much a mix of students with variable ethics at Harvard as there are anywhere else.
So even though I’m less angry now than I was when I watched the Paula Poundstone video, I am more worried about how incidents like this recent one at Harvard shape perceptions of our higher education system around the world. Domestically, our higher education institutions are under attack by reformers and politicians who want to redesign and de-fund many programs. It’s hard to defend the value of a college, and a college degree, and argue that our students deserve more federal financial support when it seems that our own top-level institutions, which allegedly attract the “best of the best” students, cannot even create a system in which such widespread cheating can be limited. It tarnishes not only the reputation of Harvard, which has produced eight presidents of the United States and whose faculty earned 32 Nobel Prizes by 2006, but also damages the reputation of our entire higher education system.
To millions around the world, the Harvard brand represents the best that American education can offer to students, businesses, and governments everywhere. Now there’s an emptiness at the core of that reputation–one that I sincerely hope does not spread to encompass the reputation of other schools.
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