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Harvard Disciplines Cheating Students

Boston — Harvard University said more than half of the students involved in a cheating scandal were forced to withdraw for a period of time.

Of the remaining students linked to the probe, half were given probation, Michael Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said yesterday in an email to the Harvard community. The school said in August that about 125 students were under investigation for inappropriate collaboration on the final exam in a government course.

“Every student contacted by the Administrative Board has been informed of the disposition of his or her individual case,” Smith said. School leaders will “redouble our efforts” to promote academic integrity, he said.

The allegations of cheating at Harvard College, which has about 6,700 undergraduates, led to anonymous criticism from students who said the course’s rules on collaboration were unclear. The magnitude of the scandal, which one official deemed “unprecedented in living memory,” may have slowed the school’s progress through the cases, said Robert Peabody, an atttorney who represented two students implicated in the scandal.

“They’re saying they took the time to get it right and make sure everyone had due process,” he said. “They could have been much more efficient.”

Students found to have cheated could be told to withdraw for two semesters, or receive a warning or probation, Jay Harris, dean of undergraduate education, said in August.

Many students went for months knowing that the Administrative Board might tell them to withdraw immediately, and their course work, along with tuition and room expenses for the semester, might be wasted. Peabody said. While both the students he represented withdrew during the semester because of the risk of being forced to do so, only one was required to withdraw, while the other was given probation, he said.

“It was death by a thousand nicks,” said Peabody, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Boston. “For the students who decided to stay on and fight the allegations, it was living torture.”

Because some of the cases were resolved in September and others in December, Harvard said it would “create a greater amount of financial equity” for students who withdrew in the term by calculating tuition refunds for all affected students as of Sept. 30.

The college formed a Committee on Academic Integrity 18 months ago that’s developing recommendations for promoting honesty among students and determining practices for faculty to follow, Smith said in the e-mail.

Griffin Gaffney, a Harvard senior majoring in social studies, said he’s seen stronger, more detailed directives on collaboration in his course materials.

“It’s a paragraph or half a page rather than a sentence, and the professor always says something about it in class,” he said in an interview.

Students with knowledge of the situation have said the course involved in the investigation was Government 1310: Introduction to Congress. The scandal came to light when a teaching fellow noticed similarities among a number of exams in mid-May, and school officials followed up with a review of every exam in the class.

While the instructions for the take-home final exam forbade collaboration among students, students were accustomed to working together in this and other courses, Peabody said.

Students aren’t permitted to discuss their disciplinary cases publicly. Some have said anonymously that collaboration was thought to be part of the “culture” of the class and was noted in course reviews. One teaching fellow in the class worked during office hours with groups of students to discuss questions and answers to the final exam, Peabody said.

The reports of confusing expectations for students suggest that the course was mismanaged, said Harry Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College and a computer science professor.

“What I’m worried about is saying that we need to draw some lessons about cheating when we should be drawing lessons about how professors run their courses,” he said in a telephone interview. “I’m worried that we’re going to cast all the blame on students and not look at where the problems really came from.”

The board sent students copies of their exams, along with the exams of other students - with their names removed - that showed evidence of collaboration or plagiarism. The students were required to write statements to the board that explained similarities, a process that went into October in some cases.

Later, these students were required to meet with subcommittees of the Administrative Board and were permitted to see the statements of the students with similar exams, again with identities removed. In their efforts to explain their own actions, some students openly implicated their classmates by name, Peabody said.

The subcommittees then reported to the full board with a recommendation, Peabody said. Students were informed of the recommendations before they went to the full board, Peabody said.

Relatively early in the process, one of the students Peabody advised decided to withdraw. The student sensed that the Administrative Board would require him to withdraw at some point, and the student wanted to preserve his eligibility for varsity athletics, Peabody said.

The other student stayed at Harvard until just after Thanksgiving before withdrawing. Her meetings with the subcommittee were pushed back, she still hadn’t heard from the full board, and the stress was too much for her, Peabody said.

The Administrative Board, most of whose members have other, full-time jobs at the university, may have been “overwhelmed” by the size and complexity of the scandal, Peabody said.

“At the beginning of the process, I don’t think they had any idea that it would shake out the way it did,” he said.

Established in 1636 and with an endowment valued at $30.7 billion, Harvard is the oldest and richest U.S. university. Alumni of the college include Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein.