The stone is worn and chipped, but you can still make out the motto inscribed above the 111-year-old McKean Gate that leads to Harvard Yard: “Veritas”, it says. Truth.
It’s ironic, then, that last month the US’ oldest and most prestigious university was embarrassed by allegations of a cheating scandal involving a reported 125 students.
Talking to undergraduates on the university’s lawns, it was clear that they were not surprised to hear the news. They claimed that cheating is not unusual at Harvard University.
But to observers outside the institution, the incident has laid bare a culture in which success is such an obsession that any shortcut to achieve it is acceptable.
“For most American students today, the biggest project in their family’s life has been to get them into college, and, if possible, to get them into an elite college,” says Howard Gardner, Hobbs professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-author of Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet.
“If this becomes all-important, then clearly you’re willing to cut corners to make it happen. The ends overwhelm the means.”
Nearly half the students on one Harvard course (not identified by the university but widely reported to be Introduction to Congress) are being investigated for cheating on a take-home final examination, either by collaborating on the answers or by plagiarising them.
Jay Harris, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education, said in a statement that the incident was “unprecedented in anyone’s living memory”.
The students involved have been referred to the administrative board, Harvard’s “honour council”, for an investigation that is likely to take several months. Potential outcomes range from exoneration to suspension for a year. A few of the students who have graduated are at risk of having their degrees revoked.
In the five years ended in 2010, the most recent period for which there are figures, only 85 students, 17 a year, were required to withdraw because of academic dishonesty. Over the same time, 55 others were placed on probation, and 30 more were formally admonished.
But Eric Kester, a 2008 graduate and author of That Book about Harvard: Surviving the World’s Most Famous University, One Embarrassment at a Time, claims that cheating at the institution is more widespread than those figures suggest. He says this is apparent from the fact that 125 students in a single class allegedly felt justified in doing it.
“One reason this is such a shock to people outside Harvard is that when you think of Harvard, you think of academic excellence, and you think of students like this having academic integrity,” Kester says. “But…these are college students, and some of them will make bad judgement calls. Cheating happens, like it does at any school. It’s a universal problem.”
If anything, academic misconduct is more prevalent among elite students than others, at least according to research based on a survey of 2,000 students at the University of Arizona that was released in March. Cheating was reported least among low-income students receiving financial aid and students who were the first in their families to go to university; it was most common among students from well-educated families. The more educated a student’s parents, the more likely he or she was to cheat.
“Harvard students feel like there’s a lot at stake, and a lot of internal and external pressure to do well,” Kester says. “It’s ingrained in every one of these students’ heads that cheating is bad; but it’s also ingrained in every student’s head that failing is bad. Sometimes those two ideals clash.”
In all, two out of three students in the Arizona survey admitted to some form of cheating.
“We have substituted the credential as a goal instead of education as a goal,” says Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s as if you were going on a round-the-world trip but all you really wanted was the passport stamps. You’re not interested in the experience or the personal growth. We’ve lost touch with the idea that education itself is a primary goal.”
Across the country, students alleged to have cheated have pushed back. Several of those implicated at Harvard have hired lawyers. Some blame the professor for giving misleading instructions, even though the cover page said that “students may not discuss their exam with others”.
“When you’re attacked, you blame somebody else,” Gardner says. “Students… see people in all sorts of positions of authority who get a slap on the wrist or nothing at all and then go on. This is the way the world is.”
When 200 business students on a strategic management course at the University of Central Florida were accused of cheating in an exam in autumn 2010, they also blamed the professor for being unclear in his instructions and for being lazy to boot - because he employed boiler-plate test questions furnished by the publisher of a textbook used in the class, which the students admitted they had obtained in advance. And when 17 former nursing students at Maricopa Community Colleges in Arizona were accused of cheating last year, they sued, too - again contending that the instructions were unclear.
“One of the reasons students give for cheating is that they would be disadvantaged if they don’t cheat because so many other people are cheating,” Fishman says. “That’s what executives who get arrested for fraud say, too.”
Surveys by researchers affiliated with the Clemson centre have found that some types of academic cheating - particularly unauthorised collaboration - have soared over the past three decades, often because students think their peers are doing it. People are also more likely to cheat the longer they stay at university, the Arizona study found.
In 2000, Dartmouth College investigated 63 students accused of cheating in a class, but it could not determine who had cheated and who had been genuinely confused by the assignment’s guidelines. All were absolved. In 2007, nearly three dozen students at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business were suspended or expelled for collaborating on a take-home exam and other assignments. An undisclosed number of students in a class at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University also allegedly collaborated on online exams last year; several had their graduations delayed and had to complete extra work before receiving their degrees.
Experts say it is possible that some students simply do not understand what constitutes dishonesty, especially in a technological age when information is omnipresent and on campuses where collegiality is otherwise encouraged.
“We in academia, we live here. So we understand the rules,” Fishman says of faculty members. “The students come and they live in academia, but their sights are set somewhere else. They’re visitors.”
But fewer university officials (35 per cent) think cheating is a problem than do members of the public (41 per cent), according to a survey by the Educational Testing Service.
Researchers connected to the Clemson centre - including its founding president, Donald McCabe, a professor of management and global business at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey - co-authored a paper based on 10 years of study that found that academics sometimes prefer to overlook cases of campus dishonesty to avoid the paperwork involved.
However, the paper, “Cheating in academic institutions: A decade of research”, did find that policies such as honour codes can curb cheating.
Harvard does not have an honour code, although its president, Drew Gilpin Faust, said it will now consider enforcing one. Last year, the university added a voluntary pledge for first-year students to uphold “integrity, respect, and industry”.
That may not be enough. A 2010 survey by Yale Daily News, the university’s student newspaper, found that the majority of the 1,037 respondents had not read the policies on academic honesty in the student handbook and did not know the rules about sharing or copying work. Like Harvard, Yale has no honour code.
“The scope of the allegations suggests that there is work to be done to ensure that every student at Harvard understands and embraces the values that are fundamental to its community of scholars,” Faust says.
Observers believe that this might be the silver lining to the Harvard cheating scandal: that its high profile shines a spotlight on the problem.
“Harvard has an opportunity here, because this has become a national story, to really make a good statement about the importance of keeping integrity at the forefront of the conversation all the time, and not take it for granted,” Kester says.
Gardner, who took his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Harvard and who has taught at the university for three decades, is more sceptical, especially as the university nears the launch of a $6 billion (£3.6 billion) fundraising campaign next year.
“The administration would love for this to just go away,” he says. “And if they try to wish it away, then things won’t change.”