AP Photo
People are led on a tour at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Aug. 30. Dozens of Harvard students are being investigated for alleged cheating after school officials discovered evidence they may have wrongly shared answers or plagiarized on a final exam.

Integrity and the Harvard cheating scandal

Harvard University's investigation of alleged mass cheating in one class points to the difficulty of schools teaching integrity to students. Rules, honor codes, and courses on ethics can help. But much depends on individual character.

For a university founded 376 years ago to train leaders of integrity, Harvard still struggles to find the best way to do just that. Last month, it announced an investigation into whether more than 100 students in a class last spring may have worked together on answers for a take-home exam.

The rules for the exam barred collaboration with other students, but they allowed students to use the textbook and the Internet, and also consult with teaching assistants. Students, as most everywhere these days, were also encouraged to study together, a necessary preparation for today’s group-oriented workplace. Many of the accused say they did nothing wrong.

Besides launching the probe, Harvard also responded by asking professors to be clear with students about rules regarding collaboration. Grades are given for individual performance even if working with others is encouraged. One’s own work must be judged while the work of others must be credited.

Intellectual honesty remains the bedrock of academia, not to mention an essential in business and citizenship. Students who cheat may have plenty of pressures and excuses to do so, but any success they enjoy will eventually be undercut as others detect a lack of integrity.

Cheating often takes place in collaborative settings, which is why so many scandals have seen large numbers of people fingered. Last year, Georgia discovered 178 educators had facilitated Atlanta public school students to cheat. In 1976, over half of the junior class at West Point academy was found to have cheated on a case assignment. 

“By understanding the possible pitfalls involved in collaboration, we can take some steps toward rectifying dishonest behavior,” writes Duke University professor Dan Ariely, author of a new book “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty.”

Teaching integrity is often left to parents and religious institutions although schools keep coming up with new ways to shape ethical behavior in students. Honor codes have had a mixed record. Many colleges offer courses on ethics, especially for business majors. Harvard itself has had prominent theorists of moral reasoning, such as the late Lawrence Kohlberg, whose work is used in classrooms and elsewhere.

People generally seek to be honest, states Dr. Ariely, but they need reminders to act that way. Character development, however, relies foremost on an understanding of one’s identity, which then influences relationships and conduct. While strict rules and the monitoring of behavior can shape character, at least temporarily, they are not enough. Character counts most of all.

Institutions like Harvard have long sought to instill the principles of honesty, but that often takes a back seat to a competition for grades and a drive for success. Whatever the outcome of the Harvard investigation, the university will not only try yet again to come up new reminders about expected student conduct but must also keep searching for how best to train tomorrow’s leaders of integrity. Vigilance is as needed as much as the Harvard motto of veritas – truth.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Integrity and the Harvard cheating scandal
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today