Harvard Is Investigating Two Percent of Its Undergraduates for Cheating

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Harvard made the stunning announcement that it is investigating about 125 undergraduates suspected of collaborating and plagiarizing one another’s answers on a take-home exam last spring. (Update: The Crimson tweets that the class was Matthew Platt’s “Introduction to Congress.”) The Globe‘s Mary Carmichael reports some details of the investigation:

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.

The students whose tests were flagged as problematic — nearly two percent of the college’s 6,700-some undergraduates — have all 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 up to year-long suspension.

The university is also considering implementing an honor code and beefing up efforts to educate students on plagiarism. (Lesson 1: If a test says “don’t collaborate,” try not to e-mail the answers to your friends.)

It doesn’t seem like much of a revelation that today’s college students often run afoul of academic ethics rules. Heck, even renowned journalists can’t seem to stay out of trouble this summer. No, the unprecedented thing about this instance is the scale of the collaboration. The Globe notes that it affects almost half the students in the course in question and two percent of the entire undergraduate student body (only if the investigation proves all suspected students actually did collaborate, of course.) And that suggests it’s not an aberration so much as a culture among Harvard undergraduates where a “non-collaboration” requirement on a take-home test is widely viewed as optional. Two percent of the student body is a lot of people to punish with something as severe as a year-long suspension. That’s no sacrificial lamb. It’s a sacrificial flock! But perhaps that’s exactly what Harvard needs to do to here. Harvard’s President Drew Gilpin Faust issued a statement that said, in part, “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.” Indeed there is, and a response that doesn’t pull any punches will go a long way toward that.