About 125 students who took a popular Harvard University government class are under investigation in the largest academic misconduct scandal known at the school.
The focus of the probe is a take-home final exam on which some students may have collaborated or copied answers, officials at Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said yesterday. Students familiar with the investigation said the course being probed was Government 1310: Introduction to Congress, the Harvard Crimson student newspaper reported.
Harvard teachers spent months combing through the exams to identify the students who are now under investigation by the college’s Administrative Board, said Jay Harris, dean of undergraduate education. Students who violated university rules face a variety of sanctions, including being required to withdraw from school for a year, Harvard said in a statement.
“These allegations, if proven, represent totally unacceptable behavior that betrays the trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends,” Harvard President Drew Faust said in a statement on the college’s website.
The Administrative Board’s actions are confidential, and Harvard won’t reveal the identity of the students or the name of the course, Harris said. He declined to predict how long the probe might take. Harvard is using the incident, which he called “unprecedented in living memory,” to increase student awareness of the importance of academic integrity, he said.
“This is a national problem -- an international problem -- a technologically enabled problem,” he said.
There were 279 students in Introduction to Congress last semester, according to Harvard’s website. Matthew Platt, an assistant professor who teaches the course, declined to comment when reached by telephone.
The course is considered relatively easy by Harvard undergraduates, said Robert Wineski, a senior studying stem-cell biology who said he hasn’t taken the class himself.
“These are things I’ve never heard of going on, honestly,” he said yesterday in a telephone interview. “This institution stresses academic integrity, so it’s very surprising.”
The incident came to light when a teaching fellow noticed similarities among a number of exams in mid-May and brought it to the attention of the professor in charge of the course, Harris said. That led the Administrative Board to begin a review of every exam, he said. The board was established in 1980 to handle administrative and disciplinary matters.
While he wouldn’t discuss specifics, Harris said school officials believe that electronic communication was part of the apparent rule violations. Students who have been raised in the Internet age may view all kinds of media differently than past generations, he said.
“Technology has shifted the way people think about intellectual property, the way people think about communicating with each other,” Harris said.
All the students suspected of being involved in the cheating have been informed that they will be asked to come before the Administrative Board, Harris said. Penalties may include a warning or probation, and some students may be exonerated, he said. No specific cases have been heard yet, he said.
The College Committee on Academic Integrity, which Harris leads, is preparing recommendations for reminding students of the importance of “academic honesty,” the school said. Harvard has orientation programs that focus on research and writing practices, such as integrity and appropriate citation, he said.
“We always stress academic integrity with our students,” he said. “It’s very hard to explain to someone that this raises ethical concerns and that it’s not OK.”
The large number of cases being investigated by the Administrative Board from a single class is “deeply disturbing,” said Michael Smith, dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which includes most of its undergraduate teachers.
“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,” he said in a letter to Harvard faculty, students and staff.
The committee will look at practices of other institutions that have faced cheating scandals, Harvard said. Security at sites administering the SAT and ACT tests in Nassau County, New York, was stepped up this year after students were found to have hired stand-ins to take the college entrance exams for them.
In 2010, Harvard senior Adam Wheeler was found to have faked his way into a spot at the college using forged recommendations, and then applied for scholarships with plagiarized essays.