By RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA published: August 31, 2012
Harvard students suspected in a major cheating scandal said on Friday that many of the accusations are based on innocent — or at least tolerated — collaboration among students, and with help from graduate-student teachers who sometimes gave them answers to test questions
Students said they were tripped up by a course whose tests were confusing, whose grading was inconsistent, and for which the professor and teaching assistants gave contradictory signals about what was expected. They face the possibility of a one-year suspension from Harvard or revocation of their diplomas if they have already graduated, and some said that they will sue the university if any serious punishment is meted out.
In years past, the course, Introduction to Congress, had a reputation as one of the easiest at Harvard College. Some of the 279 students who took it in the spring semester said that the teacher, Matthew B. Platt, an assistant professor of government, told them at the outset that he gave high grades and that neither attending his lectures nor the discussion sessions with graduate teaching fellows was mandatory.
“He said, ‘I gave out 120 A’s last year, and I’ll give out 120 more,’ ” one accused student said.
But evaluations posted online by students after finals — before the cheating charges were made — in Harvard’s Q Guide were filled with seething assessments, and made clear that the class was no longer easy. Many students, who posted anonymously, described Dr. Platt as a great lecturer, but the guide included far more comments like “I felt that many of the exam questions were designed to trick you rather than test your understanding of the material,” “the exams are absolutely absurd and don’t match the material covered in the lecture at all,” “went from being easy last year to just being plain old confusing,” and “this was perhaps the worst class I have ever taken.”
Harvard University revealed on Wednesday that nearly half of the undergraduates in the spring class were under investigation for suspected cheating, for working together or for plagiarizing on a take-home final exam. Jay Harris, the dean of undergraduate education, called the episode “unprecedented in its scope and magnitude.”
The university would not name the class, but it was identified by students facing cheating allegations. They were granted anonymity because they said they feared that open criticism could influence the outcome of their disciplinary cases.
“They’re threatening people’s futures,” said a student who graduated in May. “Having my degree revoked now would mean I lose my job.”
The students said they do not doubt that some people in the class did things that were obviously prohibited, like working together in writing test answers. But they said that some of the conduct now being condemned was taken for granted in the course, on previous tests and in previous years.
Dr. Platt and his teaching assistants did not respond to messages requesting comment that were left on Friday. In response to calls to Mr. Harris and Michael D. Smith, the dean and chief academic officer of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the university released a statement saying that the university’s administrative board still must meet with each accused student and that it has not reached any conclusions.
“We expect to learn more about the way the course was organized and how work was approached in class and on the take-home final,” the statement said. “That is the type of information that the process is designed to bring forward, and we will review all of the facts as they arise.”
The class met three times a week, and each student in the class was assigned to one of 10 discussion sections, each of which held weekly sessions with graduate teaching fellows. The course grade was based entirely on four take-home tests, which students had several days to complete and which were graded by the teaching fellows.
Students complained that teaching fellows varied widely in how tough they were in grading, how helpful they were, and which terms and references to sources they expected to see in answers. As a result, they said, students routinely shared notes from Dr. Pratt’s lectures, notes from discussion sessions, and reading materials, which they believed was allowed.
“I was just someone who shared notes, and now I’m implicated in this,” said a senior who faces a cheating allegation. “Everyone in this class had shared notes. You’d expect similar answers.”
Instructions on the final exam said, “students may not discuss the exam with others.” Students said that consulting with the fellows on exams was commonplace, that the fellows generally did not turn students away, and that the fellows did not always understand the questions, either.
One student recalled going to a teaching fellow while working on the final exam and finding a crowd of others there, asking about a test question that hinged on an unfamiliar term. The student said the fellow defined the term for them.
An accused sophomore said that in working on exams, “everybody went to the T.F.’s and begged for help. Some of the T.F.’s really laid it out for you, as explicit as you need, so of course the answers were the same.”
He said that he also discussed test questions with other students, which he acknowledged was prohibited, but he maintained that the practice was widespread and accepted.
The exam instructions said it was “completely open book, open note, open Internet, etc.” Some students asked whether there was a fundamental contradiction between telling students to use online resources, but not to discuss the test with each other.