'Conning Harvard' is a fascinating look at a scandal written by a talented young journalist.
Lectures about cheating are – like visits to the dentist’s office – something that students scrupulously try to avoid and, failing that, unwillingly resign themselves to. Our faces assume the blank visage of the woolgatherer as the lecturer (have mercy, be brief!) discourses upon rules for proper attribution and permissible forms of collaboration.Skip to next paragraph
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No matter how eloquent the delivery, the speech always manages to rankle just slightly, for it implies that every last one of us needs to be reminded yet again of our duty to abide by the ethical laws governing a community of scholars. Yet we also pity the professor, for it’s clear that he or she doesn’t particularly relish being the mouthpiece of the university’s honor policy. Usually, those few minutes at the beginning of each semester devoted to going over academic violations constitute a well-rehearsed act. Students feign attentiveness while zoning out or zooming in on a friend’s Facebook photo, and professors deliver the trite remarks in the manner of someone reading fine print.
Once in a while, though, the act of declaiming and listening is not a mere formalism. Once in a while, it is imbued with a real sense of urgency.
For students at Harvard University, the reading of academic policies this fall promises to kindle not catnaps, but colloquies. Just last week, the university reported, in the words of Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris, a cheating scandal of “unprecedented” proportions. Much information is still under wraps, but this much is known: About half of 279 students in a government course are currently under investigation for colluding on a final take-home exam last spring. Those found guilty could face a year’s suspension from the university.
What does all this say about the most vaunted institution of higher education in the nation? Cynics shrug and attest, perhaps with a hint of schadenfreude, that the news doesn’t elicit much surprise – that it's yet more evidence of an epidemic of academic deceit. Pragmatists talk of finally instituting an Honor Code on campus. Optimists say – well, there aren’t a whole lot of optimists. But if there’s no silver lining to this cloud, students and faculty could do worse than turn to a new book about the rise and fall of a singular fraudster who betrayed Harvard’s trust less than five years ago.
The name of the book is a neat précis of its content: Conning Harvard: Adam Wheeler, the Con Artist Who Faked His Way into the Ivy League. Its author, Julie Zauzmer, is a Harvard senior who, along with fellow student Xi Yu, covered the Adam Wheeler scandal from the get-go. Drawing upon an impressive range of sources – notably the numerous articles she has written for "The Harvard Crimson" as well as personal interviews with many of the individuals in her narrative – Zauzmer presents a fascinating and meticulously researched account of one young man’s circuitous and fraudulent route to Harvard and his downfall. (As a bonus for the hyper-curious, the book is interleaved with copies of Wheeler’s fake transcripts, test scores, and highly inflated resume.)
Wheeler is the antihero of Zauzmer’s tale. This may be putting it too strongly because much of the book is straightforward, unbiased reporting and Zauzmer judiciously refrains from making any explicit judgments of Wheeler’s character. But the book’s prologue and coda – by far its most impassioned sections – give a good idea of where the author’s sympathies lie.
One sentence in particular, with its eerily prescient tone, has direct bearing on the latest cheating scandal embroiling Harvard: “In the absence of integrity, a diploma is a meaningless piece of paper on the wall, a mockery of true intellectual achievement.” The following passage, too, demands to be read in the context of the current controversy: “The motto of Harvard is just one word: Veritas. Translated from Latin, it means truth. Harvard does not stand solely for accomplishment, fame, fortune, or even intelligence. When the university proclaims its own highest value, it embraces truth. Harvard understands, as the con artist never will, that without honesty, a degree is meaningless. One cannot lie in pursuit of veritas.”