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Harvard cheating scandal coverage draws criticism

Howard Manly

Responding to criticisms that a recent cheating scandal unfairly depicted the school’s athletes in general and its African American athletes in particular, Harvard President Drew Faust said in a published interview last week that the scandal was not isolated to any one group of students.  

The criticisms were in part directed against the media, including the Wall Street Journal and the Boston Globe. Of the estimated 125 students and 15 different sports teams reportedly involved in what has been considered the worst cheating scandal at the prestigious Ivy league University, only two were named, Kyle Casey and Brandon Curry, the two African American co-captains of the basketball team.  

Federal privacy laws prohibit the school from releasing the names of the students, yet Casey and Curry were identified.

The Wall Street Journal went so far as to publish the image of Tommy Amaker, the African American head coach of the basketball team, with its story on the scandal.

But Faust was clear in her recent interview with the Associated Press that those depictions were wrong. “It is not about one student group,” Faust said. “It’s not confined to any one student group.”

Last month, the school launched an investigation into the similarities of answers found on a take-home, final exam given last spring. The upper-level government class, “Introduction to Congress,” was taught by professor Matthew B. Platt and was widely considered an easy course.

According to one anonymous student, Platt began the course by telling students that he didn’t care whether they attended his lectures or discussion sections with his teaching assistants.

“I gave out 120 A’s last year,” Platt told the students on the first day, according to another student, “and I’ll give out 120 more.”

That clearly didn’t happen last spring. The Harvard Crimson obtained a May 14 letter from Platt, an assistant professor of government, detailing what appeared to be wide-scale cheating. Platt initially thought only 13 of the course’s 279 students were involved, but a subsequent school investigation found as many as 125 cases.

The tell-tale signs included obscure political references, phrases repeated word-for-word, and an extra space inserted into the number “22,500.”

Some of the other clues involved a number of students answering questions with the same correct but unexpected response, according to published reports.

For example, a question about the increasing power of the parties in the House of Representatives elicited references from many students to Congressman Henry Clay and the 1910 Cannon Revolt, which Platt described in his letter as “somewhat obscure” answers.

Several exam papers also shared exact phrases — for example, many students referred to “Freddie Mac’s stealth lobbying campaign.” And two different students mistyped the number “22,500” as “22, 500,” the extra space suggesting both answers drew on a common source.

“These allegations, if proven, represent totally unacceptable behavior that betrays the trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends,” Faust said last month when the scandal was uncovered.

Each of the students has been called before a subcommittee of the Harvard College Administrative Board, which reviews issues of academic integrity.

Possible punishments range from a warning for a first offense, to being forced to withdraw from Harvard for a year. For those who had already graduated, their diplomas could be revoked.

Jay Harris, the dean of undergraduate education, called the episode “unprecedented in its scope and magnitude.”

“We expect to learn more about the way the course was organized and how work was approached in class and on the take-home final,” a university statement said. “That is the type of information that the process is designed to bring forward, and we will review all of the facts as they arise.”

The class met three times a week, and each student in the class was assigned to one of 10 discussion sections, each of which held weekly sessions with graduate teaching fellows. The course grade was based entirely on four take-home tests, which students had several days to complete and which were graded by the teaching fellows.

 Faust said last week that the investigative process was working. “It will, I expect, exonerate some number of these students,” Faust told the Associated Press. “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.”

Though several black faculty members said they were pleased with Faust’s statements, they also said they remained appalled at the media attempts to portray the scandal as one primarily involving African Americans.