Cheating at Harvard Exposes an Admissions Game

The news that 125 students at
Harvard are under investigation for cheating has caused a
reaction often heard when the mighty fall.

How could they have been so stupid?

And in an Introduction to Congress course, no less. How
could such a large number of students — half the class —
submit almost identical answers on the take-home final exam and
assume they wouldn’t be caught?

Like politicians who send out naughty pictures of
themselves or sports stars who employ a string of prostitutes,
it seemed unbelievable that these cream-of-the-crop young people
didn’t see this coming.

But just like politicians, Harvard students (and I say this
as an alumna of that venerable institution) think they are the
smartest people in the room. (Sometimes they are.) Maybe they
thought they had outsmarted their professor and the graduate
teaching fellows grading the exams.

Some of those involved defended themselves, claiming that
the professor allowed them to share class notes, so it was no
surprise that their answers on an open-book exam were the same.
Students also complained that the exams were confusing as were
the standards set by the professor regarding collaboration.

The Administrative Board, the school’s disciplinary
organization, is deciding what consequences these students will
face. Expulsion would seem an obvious answer, but it’s not.

Dean Explains

Jay Harris, the undergraduate dean, has said the school
will be using the incident as an occasion for talking to
students about academic integrity. Part of the problem, he
indicated, was how students use the Internet. There are “clearly
shifting attitudes toward the whole idea of intellectual
property and what’s involved in moving bits and pixels around,”
he said. “This is not a unique student problem. It’s certainly
not a Harvard problem. It’s a national and international
problem.”

Harris even suggested that Harvard students might not
understand what is wrong with their actions. “We always stress
academic integrity with our students,” he said. “It’s very hard
to explain to someone that this raises ethical concerns and that
it’s not OK.” Really? How hard is it?

Before the Harvard administration appoints a committee and
issues a report and offers mandatory academic-integrity training
for incoming students, may I make one suggestion? If 2 percent
of your entire undergraduate student body is caught cheating in
one class, maybe it’s time to re-examine what goes on in the
admissions office.

It’s not that admissions officers should be expected to
know in advance who will cheat and who won’t. Teresa Fishman of
the International Institute for Academic Integrity at Clemson
University in South Carolina told the Associated Press that
between a quarter and a third of college students admit to
cheating on tests. So maybe Harvard has a better record than
most. But admissions officers really have no idea. That’s the
point.

For all the time that students spend on volunteer service
projects in the rain forest, for all the essays they submit
describing their inner struggles and decisions always to put
others first, for all the sugary recommendations they send in
from their teachers, their clergy and their internship
supervisors, hundreds of cheaters are still let in by the
admissions officers.

Not Wonderful

In fact, people who write essays about what wonderful
people they are aren’t always the most wonderful people. As
Andrew Ferguson described university admissions in his 2011
book
, “Crazy U”:

“At its most intense, the admissions process didn’t force
kids to be Lisa Simpson; it turned them into Eddie Haskell (‘You
look lovely in that new dress, Ms. Admissions Counselor.’) It
guaranteed that teenagers would pursue life with a single
ulterior motive, while pretending they weren’t.”

In addition, the college process may also be encouraging
deceit. Given all the parents, guidance counselors and private
consultants “helping” students with their essays, is it any
wonder students think that a little “collaboration” with their
friends on a final exam isn’t a problem?

Maybe now that this cheating scandal has occurred, we can
agree that the admissions process in its current form is a waste
of time and money. Admit students based on their SAT scores. If
you want to see how well they string sentences together, look at
the writing portion of the SAT. (It’s pretty hard to cheat on
the SATs, last year’s scandal on New York’s Long Island
notwithstanding.) If your college cares about the racial, ethnic
or socioeconomic mix of your incoming freshman class, ask every
student to check off a box and submit their parents’ most-recent
tax forms.

Then stop. Don’t conduct interviews. Don’t ask questions
about students’ values or ethical dilemmas they have faced.
Don’t read letters about “special circumstances.” Don’t sit
around for months debating the merits of one person’s summer
experience over another’s. Don’t try to decide whether
volunteering at a soup kitchen is a better use of a 17-year-
old’s time than being on the baseball team.

The students you admit may cheat anyway. But maybe it won’t
be as hard to explain to them why that’s “not OK.”

Naomi Schaefer Riley

Naomi Schaefer Riley , an occasional Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of "The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won't Get the College Education You Paid For."