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In Harvard scandal’s wake, reconsidering rules on collaboration

Published: Friday, March 1, 2013

Updated: Friday, March 1, 2013 02:03


Shelby Carpenter / The Tufts Daily

The line between collaboration and cheating may be hard to define in some large lecture classes like Economics 5.


 Harvard University’s reputation, in all its glowing Ivy League prestige, has been tarnished by cheating. In August, the university initiated a massive investigation of nearly half the students in an Introduction to Congress course who were accused of unauthorized collaboration on a take-home final examination last May. In early February, Harvard forced about 70 students, more than half of the investigated cases, to withdraw from the university in what a Feb. 1 New York Times article called “its largest cheating scandal in memory.”  This scandal highlights the fine line between working together and cheating, and prompts questions concerning the clarity of academic integrity policies both at Harvard and at Tufts.

According to Tufts Dean of Student Affairs Bruce Reitman, Harvard, like Tufts, has a strong tradition of maintaining a culture of academic honesty without actually instituting a full honor code. He said that Harvard maintains harsh repercussions for those who transgress. 

“They have very strong guidelines for what happens if one is caught in an academic integrity breach,” Reitman said. “It’s very involved. If you’re found responsible ... you leave. Their outcomes are quite harsh, some of the most severe in the industry.”

The cheating in Intro to Congress came to light when similarities between exams, such as identical answers and typographical errors, appeared, despite clear instructions on the exam that prohibited collaboration. However, some students claimed that similarities on their exams may have been based on class notes or attending the with the same teaching assistants.

Harvard College’s Administrative Board responded to these indications of cheating. According to its website, the Administrative Board holds the authority to handle all disciplinary cases for which there is a governing faculty legislation and for which there is a precedent for interpreting and applying the rules of the college, both of which applied to the situation. 

The website also states that Harvard’s principle is that, with exceptions in rare cases, students involved in disciplinary cases can ultimately graduate from the university because students can appeal the Board’s disciplinary decision after a certain amount of time. If approved, students can be readmitted to the university. 

Similarly, students at Tufts can appeal disciplinary decisions, though not if they have withdrawn or taken a leave of absence with disciplinary charges pending.

“If you withdraw with disciplinary charges pending you are not eligible to come back,” Tufts Judicial Affairs Officer Veronica Carter said. “They can do that, but not after the disciplinary process. They have to do it before ... They never get the Tufts degree and it stays on their transcript permanently.”

At Tufts, unauthorized collaboration on a take-home examination or term paper falls in the Level III Offenses category. A student found responsible for these actions will receive an “F” in the course or a “zero” or “F” on the assignment without the option to resubmit work.

The incident would be permanently noted on the student’s transcript, and the student would be suspended or expelled. Other, less severe types of unauthorized collaboration fall in the Level I and Level II Offenses categories.

According to Reitman, more than eight years ago, a number of new faculty members noticed inconsistencies in how other faculty members were addressing breaches in academic integrity. 

“Faculty members who were concerned about that brought it to the Dean and asked if it would be appropriate and necessary to make a standard across all the departments,” Reitman said. “They decided there should be a standard. They created what you see in the Code of Conduct for Academic Integrity.”

At the time, the bylaws for faculty members changed to require them to report any suspicions of academic dishonesty to the Dean of Students and the Judicial Affairs Officer.

“Faculty no longer had the ability to take care of problems,” Reitman said. “Our business went through the roof. Some faculty members would bring us all their cases, or their most dramatic cases, or when they could not resolve it to obtain an amicable solution. So at least this created some consistency about students’ rights and responsibilities both.”

Reitman and Carter are aware that not all faculty members may be reporting suspicions of academic dishonesty. However, Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor and former provost Sol Gittleman believes that few instances of cheating occur in his class.

“I don’t go to the administration. I handle these things myself,” Gittleman said. “[The administration] spends a lot of time trying to get students to understand the policies. Students don’t understand the policies. In my class, they do. I don’t think there’s any doubt in my class.”

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