Harvard scandal raises questions at other universities

By Greg McKeon

Allegations of unprecedented cheating on a recent final exam has put Harvard University, and other schools, in a difficult position.

Harvard conducted an investigation into nearly 125 students accused of collaborating on a final exam last semester, making it the latest school to fall victim to a rising trend of academic dishonesty in U.S. higher education. The trend raises ethical questions about how universities, including Duke, can maintain academic integrity in an increasingly collaborative environment where students are pressured to succeed.

The students, who were enrolled in Harvard’s “Introduction to Congress” course, allegedly collaborated on the class’s take-home final exam. Yet some undergraduates said the professor was unclear about the course expectations, saying they entered the course expecting an easy A.

“[The professor] said ‘I gave out 120 A’s last year, and I’ll give out 120 more,’” an accused student told the New York Times.

But by the time finals came around, the exam on which the alleged cheating occurred was significantly more difficult than anticipated.

“Classes change,” said Michael Gustafson, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke. “Certainly, having the answer be ‘I’m taking this course that’s supposed to be an easy A and now it’s not so we’re going to create this mechanism by which we turn it back into an easy A,’ that’s a disaster.”

He noted that the widespread allegations are a timely reminder for Duke, which has dealt with similar cheating scandals in the past. In 2007, 34 Duke MBA candidates at the Fuqua School of Business were suspended, expelled or flunked for collaborating on a take-home test, causing concern about integrity and commitment to the school’s honor code.

In light of the recent Harvard scandal, the Duke community should pay closer attention to the results of a study on issues of academic trustworthiness published every five years by Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, said Noah Pickus, director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics and associate research professor of public policy. The latest survey was conducted in 2011.

Although Duke continues to show significant improvement in both percentages of students committing outright plagiarism and falsifying data on their reports, the type of unauthorized collaboration seen in the Harvard case is on the rise.

According to the Kenan report, the category “Receiving unpermitted help on an assignment” was self-reported by 27.43 percent of Duke undergraduates in 2011, up from 22 percent in the previous 2005 study. Students “Working on an assignment with others when the instructor asked for individual work” rose to 34 percent in 2011 from 29 in 2005.

For students, collaboration can be a gray area in the world of academic integrity, Pickus said. As Duke attempts to foster new ideas and learning by encouraging in-class group work and out-of-class discussion of material, it is difficult to distinguish where earnest learning ends and cheating begins.

“The rules we have for academic integrity were written for a time when work was supposed to be solely individual,” Pickus said. “This mismatch causes a great deal of confusion and it’s time to create new approaches that distinguish between appropriate collaboration and inappropriate collaboration.”

Furthermore, as students race to distinguish themselves in the high-pressure job competition seen at today’s top schools, they may be more inclined toward academic dishonesty, especially unauthorized collaboration that they view as more benign.

“It raises the question of how far the university wants to go about placing boundaries around a competitive ethos,” Pickus said. “Being competitive is what we’re good at, but at the same time we don’t think that competitive success is the only standard by which we should judge success.”

Explicit communication is vital in avoiding incidents like the one at Harvard, said Stephen Bryan, associate dean of students and director of the Student Conduct Office. As Duke pushes toward group based learning, expectations for individual assignments are becoming increasingly ambiguous.

If faculty—especially in courses that rely largely on group work and take-home assignments—fail to make clear the demands of their class, students are more likely to bend their own moral codes to fit what they think is reasonable, Pickus said.

And when these two expectations do not meet, the student can face anything from teacher-student discipline to suspension for two semesters, Bryan added.

“A good rule of thumb I have been preaching lately: Students are likely to interpret the acceptable parameters for collaboration far more liberally than their instructor intended,” he said. “If both instructors and students keep this in mind, it will help prompt questions and discussions between faculty and students to reduce any confusion.”

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