Harvard Students Forced to Withdraw in Cheating Scandal

More than half of the students implicated in a Harvard University cheating scandal that involved about 125 undergraduates were told to withdraw for as long as a year.

Of the remaining students linked to the probe, half were given probation, Michael Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said today in an e-mail to the Harvard community. The school said in August that the students were under investigation for inappropriate collaboration on a final exam.

“Every student contacted by the Administrative Board has been informed of the disposition of his or her individual case,” Smith said, referring to the school’s disciplinary body. School leaders will “redouble our efforts” to promote academic integrity, he said.

The cheating allegations at Harvard College, which has about 6,700 undergraduates, led to criticism from students who said the course’s rules on collaboration were unclear. The magnitude of the scandal, which one official deemed “unprecedented in living memory,” may have slowed the school’s progress through the cases, said Robert Peabody, an attorney with Collora LLP in Boston who represented two of the implicated students.

“They’re saying they took the time to get it right and make sure everyone had due process,” he said in a telephone interview. “They could have been much more efficient.”

‘Laborious’ Process

Students found to have cheated could be told to withdraw for two semesters, or receive a warning or be put on probation, Jay Harris, dean of undergraduate education, said in August.

The review process is “laborious” and gives students multiple opportunities to voice their views of the case, Smith said today.

“The review of a case takes exactly as long as it needs to take in order to ensure that a student receives a full and fair review, conforming to the high bar that the Faculty has set for the Board’s proceedings,” he said in the e-mail.

Many students went for months knowing that the Administrative Board might tell them to withdraw immediately, and their course work, along with tuition and room expenses for the semester, might be wasted, Peabody said. While both the students he represented withdrew during the semester because of the risk of being forced to do so, only one was required to withdraw, while the other was given probation, he said.

Tuition Refunds

“It was death by a thousand nicks,” said Peabody, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Boston. “For the students who decided to stay on and fight the allegations, it was living torture.”

Because some of the cases were resolved in September and others in December, Harvard said it would “create a greater amount of financial equity” for students who withdrew in the term by calculating tuition refunds for all affected students as of Sept. 30.

The college formed a Committee on Academic Integrity 18 months ago that’s developing recommendations for promoting honesty among students and determining practices for faculty to follow, Smith said in the e-mail.

Griffin Gaffney, a Harvard senior majoring in social studies, said he’s seen stronger, more detailed directives on collaboration in his course materials.

“It’s a paragraph or half a page rather than a sentence, and the professor always says something about it in class,” he said in an interview.

Faculty Awareness

The scandal has raised the faculty’s awareness of the importance of communicating with students about standards for scholarship, said Ryan Wilkinson, a teaching fellow in the history department.

“Without question, there was a lot of discussion from the teaching side of the campus,” he said in an interview. “Even at Harvard, people are human beings and this can potentially happen.”

Students with knowledge of the situation have said the course involved in the investigation was Government 1310: Introduction to Congress. The scandal came to light when a teaching fellow noticed similarities among a number of exams in mid-May, and school officials followed up with a review of every exam in the class.

Class ‘Culture’

While the instructions for the take-home final exam forbade collaboration among students, students were accustomed to working together in this and other courses, Peabody said.

Students aren’t permitted to discuss their disciplinary cases publicly. Some have said anonymously that collaboration was thought to be part of the “culture” of the class and was noted in course reviews. One teaching fellow in the class worked during office hours with groups of students to discuss questions and answers to the final exam, Peabody said.

Tom Stemberg, a Harvard alumnus and co-founder of the Staples Inc. office supply chain, said most of the blame lies with the teacher and his management of the course. Earlier this month, Stemberg wrote Harvard President Drew Faust to express his unhappiness with the probe.

“Those students who cut and pasted exam answers deserved to get kicked out,” Stemberg said today in a telephone interview. “The rest of them should have been vindicated, and the faculty member fired.”

A call seeking comment from Matthew Platt, who taught the government class, wasn’t immediately returned.

Comparing Exams

The board sent students copies of their exams, along with the exams of other students -- with their names removed -- that showed evidence of collaboration or plagiarism. The students were required to write statements to the board that explained similarities, a process that went into October in some cases.

Later, these students were required to meet with subcommittees of the Administrative Board and were permitted to see the statements of the students with similar exams, again with identities removed. In their efforts to explain their own actions, some students implicated their classmates by name, Peabody said.

The subcommittees then reported to the full board with a recommendation, Peabody said. Students were informed of the recommendations before they went to the full board, he said.

Relatively early in the process, one of the students Peabody advised decided to withdraw. The student sensed that the Administrative Board would require him to withdraw at some point, and the student wanted to preserve his eligibility for varsity athletics, Peabody said.

The other student stayed at Harvard until just after Thanksgiving before withdrawing. Her meetings with the subcommittee were pushed back, she still hadn’t heard from the full board, and the stress was too much for her, Peabody said.

Established in 1636 and with an endowment valued at $30.7 billion, Harvard is the oldest and richest U.S. university. Alumni of the college include Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein.