Reform necessary for cheating punishment

Reform necessary for cheating punishment (credit: Josh Smith/Forum Editor) Reform necessary for cheating punishment (credit: Josh Smith/Forum Editor)
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A cheating scandal at an esteemed academic institution is once again making headlines. One hundred and twenty-five Harvard University students were accused of cheating on a test for a class called Introduction to Congress last spring, according to a recent article in The New York Times. The exam was a take-home test, and the students were told that they could use any internet resources they wanted. However, they were told not to discuss the test with each other.

The students caught cheating face disciplinary action, such as year-long suspensions, and those who have already graduated could have their diplomas rescinded. Professors and students alike have expressed deep outrage at such fraudulent behavior, especially at a school like Harvard.

First off, the idea that cheating is somehow worse or more surprising because it’s at Harvard is completely absurd. Whether it occurs at Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, or Greendale Community College, cheating should be treated in the same manner. Cheating becomes even harder to handle when universities classify some forms of collaboration as cheating. The line between collaboration and cheating is hard to distinguish, mostly because collaboration can be helpful and sometimes the best way to learn. But the fact remains: The students were told not to talk to each other about the test. Even if their interactions were honest collaborations, they were cheating.

In an ideal world, professors could hand out take-home tests and know that their students would not cheat; this would save class time for lectures instead of exams and preserve the integrity of the university. Universities should expect all of their students to live up to a standard of honesty, but that is unrealistic. Everybody cheats, and if they haven’t, they probably didn’t treat a class with as much consideration as it deserves.

I haven’t cheated on a test — except that one time in second grade when I totally tried to copy answers on a math test; sorry I forgot to mention it, Carnegie Mellon. But I have cut corners or come up with excuses that were artful pieces of fiction. It’s normal. That doesn’t mean it’s okay, but it does mean that students who are caught cheating aren’t automatically demons, to be cast out of our illustrious institutions with a complimentary public shaming.

Universities are in an interesting bind, especially when it comes to students who have already graduated, because the universities simultaneously lack power and have too much. A university can suspend a current student who is caught cheating or prohibit them from participating in activities, because it has immediate power.

Students who have already graduated are out of a university’s reach, for the most part — unless the university decides to take that all-important diploma back. This destroys a student’s ability to get a job or go to graduate school.

Yes, the cheating students made a mistake, but one mistake shouldn’t mess up the rest of their lives, especially considering that few of the students in question were accused of plagiarism, but rather of collaborative cheating. Both plagiarism and collaborative cheating break the rules, but the former demonstrates a complete lack of consideration for the class, while the latter can demonstrate an actual attempt to learn. No one really knows if the students involved were trying to collaborate, or just copying work from friends. But even if they were copying work, does that make it okay to wreck their chances of having a successful life after school?

Harvard is threatening to hang these students out to dry because publicly disciplining them serves the twofold purpose of purifying the school’s name and discouraging other students from trying a similar trick. But punishing students who get caught doesn’t mean that the university is free of cheating, because everyone has, more likely than not, done something morally questionable over the course of their academic careers. The school shouldn’t just let it go, but lambasting the students doesn’t cleanse dishonesty from an institution. Doing that would require a much deeper revamping of the way we look at school and the way we value hard work throughout the country.