Harvard scandal reveals need for increased clarity

Harvard University announced its investigation into allegations of cheating for the final exam of its Introduction to Congress course in August 2012. Over half of the class was initially accused. In early February, the university announced their final decisions regarding the fates of the students accused of cheating.

Professor Matthew Platt grew suspicious when many exams were similar. Some exams even had the same typos. Students were accused of collaboration or plagiarism, and many were recently forced to withdraw. Some students are now on probation and lost credits for courses that they had almost completed during the Fall 2012 semester.

However, the case is not that simple. Academic integrity ultimately rests on the shoulders of students, but professors and their assistants also play a role in ensuring the clarity of what constitutes cheating.

The course Introduction to Congress has a reputation of being an exceedingly easy class, which, according to students, Platt openly acknowledged. According to a student, Platt said, “I gave out 120 A's last semester, and I'll give out 120 more.” He told students that coming to lecture was not necessary, as they could share notes. Many accused students claim that the similarities in the final tests come from these notes.

Some students claimed that the prompt for the exam — which was a take-home test — was confusing.

It read: “The exam is completely open book, open note, open internet, etc. However, in all other regards, this should fall under similar guidelines that apply to in-class exams. More specifically, students may not discuss the exam with others — this includes resident tutors, writing centers, etc.”

Despite these guidelines, Platt and the teaching fellows held office hours before the exam was due, in which they discussed the questions.

If the directions stated that students could not talk about the exam, the instructors should have consistently upheld that rule.

Furthermore, the exam was the last of four take-home tests for the class. The students received similar instructions on all of those tests, but had collaborated on the first three without reprisal. Once again, consistency should have been a priority.

Academic honesty seems obvious, but each teacher has different standards for his or her class. Teachers must make those rules explicitly clear, and then stand by them.