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Possible Harvard Cheating Scandal Nets 125 Students


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Harvard University is investigating what it calls an unprecedented case of cheating. College officials say around 125 students may have shared answers and plagiarized on a final exam last spring. From member station WBUR in Boston, Curt Nickisch has reaction on campus.

CURT NICKISCH, BYLINE: This is not what a brand-new class of carefree 18-year-olds expected to be talking about as they went through freshman orientation today.

MEGAN MONTELEONE: One of my friends even called me and said, oh, like, I heard that, like, Harvard had this big cheating scandal. Have you heard about it? And I was like, yeah, I did hear about it 'cause they emailed everyone.

NICKISCH: Incoming freshman Megan Monteleone says cheating is not what she came to Harvard to put on a resume.

MONTELEONE: Everyone is always looking for something to put Harvard down with, it feels, and I just hope that it's not going to take precedence.

NICKISCH: Cheating is not new at Harvard. Ted Kennedy was famously kicked out for a year for getting someone else to take his Spanish test. This, however, is the biggest cheating scandal in memory. Harvard officials say roughly half of the students in a single course apparently copied each other or collaborated on a take-home exam last spring. They were supposed to work on their own. A teaching assistant noticed consistencies between them. The professor reported the students to the administration.

CHRISTINE HEENAN: Academic integrity issues are something the university considers a bedrock of the educational mission of a place like Harvard.

NICKISCH: Christine Heenan is an administration vice president. She says the students whose work is being questioned have to report to a review board. Those found responsible could be suspended up to a year. Heenan says the allegations are an opportunity to review Harvard's standards.

HEENAN: What appears to be a potentially large number in one class does raise concerns about do all of our students understand and embrace the importance of academic integrity and to reinforce our own view that those are very important values.

NICKISCH: The university is going to reinforce those values by putting more emphasis on discussing plagiarism and cheating, and the difference between collaborating and doing your own work. A committee is considering whether to formulate an academic code of conduct.

LANA IDRIS: Like, I commend them on being honest about it.

NICKISCH: Incoming freshman Lana Idris is from Dallas.

IDRIS: And, like, actually showcasing that they are stopping the actions while other universities might turn a blind side to the cheating that's happening in order not to sully their names.

NICKISCH: Other students are skeptical that there is a problem at all. Jake Miller is a sophomore. He says he's never seen cheating. Dozens of students in a single class, it doesn't add up to him.

JAKE MILLER: People are kind of hoping that there's more to the story here, and that it wasn't as bad as some people are alleging because, you know, it really seems to be uncharacteristic of the people I've seen, the people I've met, everything like that and the classes I've taken.

HOWARD GARDNER: I'm shocked but not surprised.

NICKISCH: Harvard education Professor Howard Gardner says students' perception of cheating has been changing.

GARDNER: I've been worried for two decades about the thinning of the ethical muscles of America in general and of some of the very best and brightest.

NICKISCH: Gardner likens the cheating scandal at Harvard to the sexual assaults that plagued the U.S. Air Force Academy. He says the university needs to act forcefully to return to the highest standards so that students know and do the right thing. For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Curt Nickisch