Cheating at Harvard?

What can we learn from the brewing scandal?


A few days ago I was listening to accounts of the story about cheating at Harvard. This was an incident that allegedly occurred last spring when around half of a class of 250 students was found to have engaged in some form of impropriety (copying, collaborating, and plagiarizing) on a take home exam.

Leaving aside the juiciness of cheating at an elite institution of higher learning, I was struck by the several questions that leapt into my head, none of which were being asked in any of the stories I read. (Maybe I’m just reading the wrong news.)

To begin, let’s go back to first principles. What IS cheating? Do we all agree what it looks like? Did we spend any time beforehand making sure we are in sync? I’m not offering a definition, only the suggestion that it’s a good idea to start here and find out whether we all have the same notion.

Then, what assumptions are we holding that we ought to be testing? To wit, that everyone in the community knows that cheating, as we choose to define it, is bad? That when someone sees someone else cheating, she knows to turn that person in?

These are only assumptions, and as assumptions, they need to be constantly monitored for their ongoing meaning and relevance. We’ve all been in situations where what we thought was true turned out to be only our own faulty and incomplete interpretation of what was happening.

And my last question: Is there a different way we need to be thinking about academic integrity and performance expectations? This case highlights the prevailing philosophy that individual performance is what matters most. This is what we try to measure throughout academia. Problem is, the world beyond the academy doesn’t work that way.

I have clients who pay me lots of money because they want help figuring out how to break free of the rut of individual performance expectations and get their people working collaboratively, across boundaries. Sharing information and resources. Finding better answers together than they could have by themselves.

Why doesn’t our education system prepare us for these real world challenges?

For all the wonderful things our education system does, it seems that this is one place it is lagging behind. Perhaps these Harvard students are in the vanguard of something new. I wonder if the institution has the courage to ask itself some tough questions about what comes next.