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.

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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.

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.

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