Michael Gaynor
February 6, 2013
Scrutinize faculty and administrators in cheating scandals from Harvard College to St. Joseph's College
By Michael Gaynor

Education is too important to be left to arrogant and arbitrary faculty and administrators.

Cheating still happens at colleges as prominent as Harvard in Massachusetts (tied for best university with Princeton in the Best Colleges ratings) and not so prominent as St. Joseph's College in New York (number 86 in the Regional Universities (North) category).

Unfortunately, faculty and administration still don't handle the problem well, especially and faculty too is at fault. Faculty fault and damage caused by faculty fault tend to be covered up or disregarded, since colleges perceive themselves as the final authority. See, for example, The Mind-boggling (Yet Unreported) St. Joseph's MBA Program Cheating Scandal (November 15, 2012) (www.webcommentary.com/php/ShowArticle.php?id=gaynorm&date=121115) and University and College Administrations Must Stop Misleading The Public, Rubber Stamping Arbitrary Instructors and Overreacting to Plagiarism Scandals (November 19, 2012) (www.webcommentary.com/php/ShowArticle.php?id=gaynorm&date=121119).

On February 1, 2013, Richard Perez-Pena of the New York Times, reporting on the Harvard cheating scandal, began: "Harvard has forced dozens of students to leave in its largest cheating scandal in memory, the university made clear in summing up the affair on Friday, but it would not address assertions that the blame rested partly with a professor and his teaching assistants." (www.nytimes.com/2013/02/02/education/harvard-forced-dozens-to-leave-in-cheating-scandal.html?_r=0)

Bravo to Mr. Perez-Pena for highlighting what the Harvard College administration chose NOT to address – culpability of a college professor and his teaching assistants.

The Harvard cheating scandal was a big deal. After a teaching assistant reported similarities between a small number of exams during grading in May 2012, the course's professor notified the Harvard College Administrative Board, it reviewed all final exams and then pursued individual cases against nearly half of the 279 students enrolled in the class.

Harvard dean Michael D. Smith recently stated in a letter to faculty members and students that "somewhat more than half" of the "nearly half" of 279 students suspected of cheating had been required to withdraw. (The Administrative Board's Web site states that usually after two to four semesters, a student forced to withdraw may return.)

Mr. Perez-Pena also noted that at least one innocent student caught up in the scandal were unwilling to go on the record, even after being cleared: " One implicated student, who argued that similarities between his paper and others could be traced to shared lecture notes, said the Administrative Board demanded that he produce the notes six months later. The student, who asked not to be identified because he still must deal with Harvard administrators, said he found some notes and was not forced to withdraw."

Secretive Harvard did not identify the course or the professor involved, but it could not conceal them. Mr. Perez-Pena noted that "they were quickly identified by the implicated students as Introduction to Congress and Matthew B. Platt, an assistant professor of government" and added that "Dr. Platt did not respond to messages seeking comment Friday."

Facts reported by Mr. Perez-Pena strongly suggest that he Harvard administration and Professor Platt and his teaching assistants need to be investigated, so that the whole story becomes known.

Mr. Perez-Pena:

"In previous years, students called it an easy class with optional attendance and frequent collaboration. But students who took it last spring said that it had suddenly become quite difficult, with tests that were hard to comprehend, so they sought help from the graduate students who ran the class discussion groups and graded assignments. Those teaching fellows, they said, readily advised them on interpreting exam questions.

"Administrators said that on final-exam questions, some students supplied identical answers, down to, in some cases, typographical errors, indicating that they had written them together or plagiarized them. But some students claimed that the similarities in their answers were due to sharing notes or sitting in on sessions with the same teaching fellows. The instructions on the take-home exam explicitly prohibited collaboration, but many students said they did not think that included talking with teaching fellows.

"Dr. Smith's long note did not say how the Administrative Board viewed such distinctions, or whether the university had investigated the conduct of the professor and teaching fellows, and a spokesman said Harvard would not elaborate on those questions."

Thomas G. Sternberg, a co-founder of Staples and a Harvard alumni, put blame on Dr. Platt: "We had a professor who, like many the Faculty of Arts and Sciences assigns to teach undergraduates, was clearly not qualified to do so."

The Harvard Crimson reported (www.thecrimson.com/article/2013/1/25/letter-stemberg-cheating-scandal/):

"Thomas G. Stemberg '71, founder of the retail chain Staples and a prominent supporter of the Harvard mens' basketball program, characterized the College's handling of the Government 1310 cheating scandal as 'Orwellian' in a personal letter addressed to University President Drew G. Faust.

"In the letter, whose greeting read, 'Dear Drew,' Stemberg leveled a harsh rebuke at the academic dishonesty investigation that brought down the two co-captains of a Harvard team with NCAA tournament prospects.

"'Over 40 years as a student, an alumnus, and Harvard parent, I have never seen the need to write a letter of complaint,' Stemberg wrote in the opening line of his letter. 'However, the University's approach to and handling of the so-called "Congress" cheating scandal compels me to write one.'"

The full text of Mr. Sternberg's letter is as follows:

"Dear Drew:

"Over 40 years as a student, an alumnus, and Harvard parent, I have never seen the need to write a letter of complaint. However, the University's approach to and handling of the so-called 'Congress' cheating scandal compels me to write one.

"I know a number of the affected undergraduates, and my son knows many others. Yet I write this only after discussing the matter with two former Deans of Harvard College, who not only confirmed my dissatisfaction, but amplified it.

"We had a professor who, like many the Faculty of Arts and Sciences assigns to teach undergraduates, was clearly not qualified to do so. After several exams for which open collaboration was encouraged, he changed the rules. One was told that on this particular take home exam, one could not collaborate with professors, teaching fellows 'and others.' One would suppose this meant students.

"If the message was so clearly expressed, why did some of the teaching fellows go over the exam in open session, a per se violation of the professor's seeming intent? If they did not get the message, could one expect the students to understand it?

"While some students clearly went too far, literally cutting and pasting their answers, others did no more than write answers from notes that were derived in the collaborative atmosphere the class encouraged. It was surely appropriate to punish the former group.

"To then go through a seemingly endless judicial process that found virtually all of the latter group to be guilty, damaging the educational experience and the reputation of scores of innocent students was Orwellian. And then to let off only those students who lied and said others had copied from them insults the word VERITAS.

"As an alumnus, how can one come to any conclusion other than the University has a bloated bureaucracy so intent on being politically correct, that its students and its mission are forgotten?"

Bridget Murphy of the Huffington Post titled her report on the Harvard cheating scandal "Harvard Cheating Scandal Ends In Dozens Of Forced Withdrawals" (www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/01/harvard-cheating-scandal-_n_2600366.html).

The carefully crafted Harvard press release should not be the end of the matter.

Ms. Murphy quoted Mr. Sternberg as follows: "If you challenge the entire faculty at the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Law School to come up with a process that took more time, cost more money, embarrassed more innocent students, and vindicated guilty faculty ... that could not have outdone the process that took place."

Collateral damage to the innocent needs to be avoided or undone, and all those who are guilty need to be identified and punished.

Recently Sean Hannity performed invaluable public services in presenting two very illuminating specials of the District of Columbia, "Boomtown" (http://foxnewsinsider.com/2013/01/24/sneak-peek-sean-hannity-reveals-the-booming-business-of-government-in-boomtown-washington-the-imperial-city/) and "District of Corruption" (which included an interview of ACORN whistleblower Anita Moncrief) (www.foxnews.com/on-air/hannity/2012/11/23/district-corruption-exposes-crony-capitalism-washington).

Education is too important to be left to arrogant and arbitrary faculty and administrators.

To set matters right and to protect the innocent, it's time to put a spotlight on corruption and cover up in America's educational institutions and to expose the culpits, be it blatant plagiarists, or unqualified faculty, or rubberstamp administrators.

A Hannity special would fit the bill nicely.

© Michael Gaynor


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)

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Michael Gaynor

Michael J. Gaynor has been practicing law in New York since 1973. A former partner at Fulton, Duncombe & Rowe and Gaynor & Bass, he is a solo practitioner admitted to practice in New York state and federal courts and an Association of the Bar of the City of New York member... (more)


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