Sunday, September 02, 2012


There's an interesting new article on the Gov 1310 case* on the Crimson yesterday, titled Students Accused  in Cheating Scandal Frustrated by Uncertain Process.  Well, of course the students are frustrated, but I think it's somewhat unfair to call the process "uncertain", so I'd like to go through this a bit and consider the complaints.

Before getting to specifics, some generalities.  These complaints are not new to this case;  the issue of the "uncertainty" of the Ad Board comes up all the time.  While I try to be sympathetic to the complaint, this is just a fact of life.  While I dislike resorting to the natural framework that the Ad Board is like a legal proceedings, because in some ways it very much is not, it is in some ways.  Evidence must be gathered and weighed.  This takes time, and there are participants' schedule to juggle (students as well as administrators), so there is uncertainty in when decisions will be reached.  There are rules providing for outcomes depending on what decision is reached, so in some sense the possible outcomes are known, but of course one does not know what the decision will be ahead of time.  As someone who has spent some time involved in legal proceedings (fortunately, as an expert witness, not as a defendant), I am aware that "uncertainties" in timing and outcome are an essentially unavoidable part of the process.  It is arguably the price for having a body do its best to carefully and fairly reach a judgment on what has occurred and how the rules apply in the circumstances.

So now let's look at specific points of the Crimson article.

First, it is reported the Secretary of the Ad Board had told a student they could expect to receive a verdict by November.  I understand that's a long time, but that appears to be the outcome of having so many cases to deal with.  In a standard setting, I believe the Ad Board tries to resolve such cases in a small number of weeks (often 1-3), depending on how many students are involved.  Here, there's a bottleneck.
"The student said he feels the Administrative Board process has left him unable to make plans for the new semester that begins on Tuesday as he waits to hear whether he will be forced to withdraw from Harvard."
While I understand, that sucks, how exactly could the process change?  

Well, there is actually a suggestion in there -- the Ad Board doesn't (and didn't) meet over the summer, but there's the suggestion that the administrators should have been "called back" to work on the Gov 1310 case during the summer.  I'm not sure if the Ad Board considered that, or if it would have been feasible.  Were I currently serving on the Ad Board, for example, Harvard would have trouble "calling me back" at various points over the summer, when I'm traveling.  These administrators have other obligations and duties;  Ad Board is not their full time role.  But perhaps this is a valid point of criticism.

Another thing they could do is try to put more bodies on the problem now.  Again, I'm not sure how feasible that is;  it wouldn't fit in with how cases are normally run (eventually, the Ad Board as a body has to meet and vote on cases), and I can see all sorts of potential problems bringing in other administrators or faculty members not familiar with the Ad Board process to try to deal with this specific case.   So again, while this is perhaps a valid criticism, realistically, the students have to understand that all this takes time, given the large number of cases, and particularly since a goal is to have the right outcomes, which means careful study of each individual's situation by multiple people.  

Another uncertainty complaint comes from a recent graduate who received notice that they are being investigated, who apparently is not clear on what punishments might be forthcoming.   
“It’s unfair to leave that uncertainty, given that we’re starting lives,” said the alumnus, who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because he said he feared repercussions from Harvard for discussing the case. “It’d be a huge financial and emotional hardship…. If my degree was threatened, I would not take that lightly.”
It's an interesting question whether a degree can/should be taken away for cheating after the degree has been granted.  I admit, I would have to ask the administrators if this is possible, but my understanding is that while temporarily rescinding a degree is rare it is a possible punishment.  (Essentially, the student would have not been in "good standing" at the time of graduation, which means they couldn't have received their diploma.)  But I'm not clear what the alumnus is complaining about.  If the issue is whether they are uncertain as to whether it's possible their degree would be rescinded (until such time as they are back in good standing -- this would not keep them from their degree permanently, if I understand properly), a call to their Ad Board representative should clear that up.  If the issue is that they are upset that the outcome is uncertain, again, the Ad Board has to gather evidence, discuss, and reach its conclusion, and I'm sure they're working hard to do so as quickly as possible.

One other interesting complaint is that a student thought Harvard should not have made the Gov 1030 case public;  it makes it difficult for students who voluntarily or involuntarily withdraw to keep their involvement confidential (for example, to potential employers).  I think this is somewhat unrealistic.  With so many people involved, this was going to reach the public's ears eventually, whether Harvard made the announcement or not.  And employers generally seek information regarding reasons when a student leaves campus for a prolonged period;  students must face that they may have to discuss the issue when looking for jobs or in other cases where their record might be examined.  

I imagine I may be appearing unsympathetic to the students;  this is not the case.  Particularly in this case, I'm sure there are many students who will be completely absolved, and they will have gone through significant stress along the way.  Unfortunately, these things happen -- while students might not yet realize it, most people at some point have similar unpleasant run-ins with various bureaucracies.  Blaming the Ad Board for uncertainties that appear inherent to the process, while completely understandable given the stress and emotions involved, seems misplaced.        

* I've been trying to avoid referring to it as a "cheating scandal" since, as far as I can tell, nobody at this point has been required to withdraw for academic misconduct.  Hence for now it's the Gov 1030 case.


Paul Beame said...

It is hard to imagine that the public nature of the situation will not influence the decisions of the Ad Board. As an undergrad, I served on a university tribunal (which was run very much as a legal proceedings with some students represented by counsel) and I would certainly not have appreciated publicity about cases before we heard them.

In this instance, the publicity makes this an opportunity to use the moment to teach the entire student body about the real consequences of doing what is alleged. That makes a "slap on the wrist" highly unlikely. On the other hand, those numbers make it a big chunk of the student population and I can imagine lots of push from the university development office (parent donors) that could influence things the other way. The specific details and certainty with which charges are being made can influence punishments in normal cases - the publicity and number of cases may mitigate against that subtlety.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...


You say:

"It is hard to imagine that the public nature of the situation will not influence the decisions of the Ad Board."

Having served on the Ad Board, I would disagree with this statement.

Also, I should point out that students do not serve on the Ad Board; it consists of a small number of professors, the resident deans of the Harvard houses (who are administrators and often instructors), and some from the Harvard administration. Perhaps this helps protect the Board from the "public nature" of the case.

Paul Beame said...

Come on! Do you imagine that none of the professors or administrators on the Ad Board will have read any outside discussions about possible sanctions in this case? That hardly seems likely. Do you think that the arguments advanced there will not influence them?

BTW: As an undergrad, I was on the tribunal as one of the 50 members of the governing council (equivalent in power to the combination of faculty senate + board of governors). The university tribunal adjudicated appeals of initial cheating sanctions assessed by schools and colleges as well as complaints about due process in other academic situations. I would probably have been less likely to have felt outside pressures than administrators would.

David said...

@Paul: I don't think that Michael is actually responsible for your failure of imagination.

Harry Lewis said...

The problem I am having with judging the equity of this process is that the Board is not well situated to pass judgment on problems with the course. The directions on the exam prohibit collaboration, and some students may acknowledge that they did in fact talk to each other. Open and shut case, perhaps.

On the other hand, the exam was posted for eight days, the entirety of reading period; that is an awfully long time for students in the class to be expected to say absolutely nothing to each other about it. (Could you have a "take-home exam" that was posted for, say, 2 months with an instruction it is not to be discussed? Why not?) And apparently TFs were holding office hours during this period, which took the form of collective discussions with groups of students; I suppose you could simultaneously hold that (a) it was fine for a series of students to ask questions of the TF in these group office hours, and for the TF to answer them in the presence of the other students, but (b) that if the students said one word directly to each other, that would be a violation of academic honesty. But this set up seems to me, at a minimum, to be asking for trouble.

My point is not to pass judgment here on what should happen to the students (who in any case did not all do the same thing), but to observe that the Board is set up to administer the rules of the Faculty as they apply to undergraduate behavior, not to judge whether faculty behavior has been reasonable. It seems to me that the real equity issues for some students really revolve around that, and I am just not sure the Board is well constituted to investigate or judge that, when faced with judgments that may be cut and dried, if you don't lift your eyes a bit to look at the context.