Cheating at Harvard: Shocked, Shocked!

Perhaps you heard: half of a 250-person undergraduate class at Harvard has been accused of cheating on an exam. Here are:

Let’s get the irrelevancies out of the way.  First, the class was “Introduction to Congress.” Pause for yucks.

Secondly, there are the occasional whiners: “it was really hard, not fair,” or “they didn’t tell us how to define things.” Let’s not pause here either.

Moving right along, now, let’s assume that Harvard is no better or worse than other schools. You may agree or not, but I think the interesting issues lie elsewhere.

David Gebler, ethicist and author of the recent The Three Power Values, says: “It’s the worst hypocrisy to create a set of social norms and expectations in our society of which Harvard is the pinnacle, and then act as shocked as Inspector Renault in Casablanca that the students are acting unethically.”

He’s right. There are three interesting student reactions that seem to crop up in articles about the scandal:

  1. You mean, that was “cheating?”
  2. Come on, everybody does that.
  3. What do you expect me to do, the point is to win.

All three are serious causes for concern, but for very different reasons.

You Mean, That was Cheating?

This isn’t as dumb as many may think on first hearing.

The class in question was conducted making heavy use of teaching aides and study groups. This makes great sense given the need for collaborative workforces in the future. Unfortunately, if learning is primarily group learning, it puts pressure on the academic program and faculty to be very clear about boundaries between individual and group accountability.  (There’s a parallel here between group and individual bonus bases within corporations).

That raises many challenges, chief among them that the exam was “open internet.” In a day and age when everyone can share everything with everyone else in real-time, this goes beyond being just a barn-door of a loophole; it’s a fundamental failure to articulate the distinction between individual and group accountabilities.

This doesn’t mean students didn’t behave unethically; but it puts if anything more of a burden on institutions, particularly on schools, to delineate the boundaries.

Come On, Everybody Does That

To the extent this is true – and it’s considerable – shame on the role models.

As Howard Gardner points out in When Ambition Trumps Ethics, within the hallowed Ivy halls alone there are plenty of examples of

“professors [who] cut corners — in their class attendance, their attention to student work and, most flagrantly, their use of others to do research.

Most embarrassingly, when professors are caught — whether in financial misdealings or even plagiarizing others’ work — there are frequently no clear punishments. If punishments ensue, they are kept quiet, and no one learns the lessons that need to be learned.”

Gardner cites frequent, broad-based, research over time that suggests students over the last 20 years have become blasé about violations.  The majority think firing faculty for falsification of resumes is an over-reaction, and they don’t see much wrong with the behavior of the Enron gang in manipulating prices. After all, “everyone does it.”

I needn’t mention the coverups of the Catholic church, the repression of the ruling class at Penn State, or the general defense of cyclist Lance Armstrong, just to pick a few recent examples. And for heaven’s sake let’s not talk the fate of truth at political party conventions. Sadly, everyone really, really does do that.

“Everybody does that” is no excuse, widespread though it is. Cheating is unethical and should be condemned. But those doing the condemning are frequently those who, like Renault, are by default encouraging the behavior by their failure to act.

What Do You Expect – the Point is to Win

This is the most shocking of the attitudes. While the other two reflect some ambiguity in execution, this argument attacks ethics directly, claiming that ethics should be subordinated to the pursuit of success. A classic ends justify the means argument, which is in principle anti-ethical.

Rich Sternhell, retired executive, says he was not surprised by Gardner’s piece.

“By the time people get to Harvard (or Yale or Penn State or wherever) they have had to compete in ways that never tempted my generation. I note David Brooks’ observation of the recent GOP Convention, how all the speakers with the notable exception of Condoleeza Rice talked about “I” rather than “we”.

Every individual example of ethical violation weakens our community bond.  Baseball players worry about their contracts not the team. CEOs worry about their parachutes or share value, not the legacy of the company.  The concept of stewardship is rarely heard.”

I would throw in for equal blame our leading business thinkers.  We have become subconsciously infected by the doctrines of competitive advantage, shareholder value, and an Ayn-Rand-lensed perversion of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, so much that we have a generation that can’t tell ethics from economics.  We actually have game theorists in the Harvard Business Review arguing that throwing a match in the Olympics is in principle no different from a lob shot in tennis – since after all, the ultimate goal is to win.

People, the purpose of business is not to make a profit.  That way lies madness. And a generation of cheaters.

They are still morally to blame, but the people who raised them, taught them, trained them and role-modeled for them are at least as culpable.



7 replies
  1. Jeremy Schultz
    Jeremy Schultz says:

    I loved this article but wanted to comment about the aside re: the thrown matches in the recent Olympics. I think “winning” should not be the goal in an educational setting but it should be in a sports setting, and the Olympic athletes were not doing anything unethical.

    Students shouldn’t look to “win,” but to learn, and the idea is to earn the top grade by learning the material. Cheating may get the grade but the learning doesn’t happen. In contrast, in sports, winning is the end result and if the tournament system rewards thrown matches (like it did in the botched Olympic badminton tourney) then the athletes would be remiss not to take that advantage.

    • Trusted Advisor
      Trusted Advisor says:


      Thanks for taking the time to contribute to the dialogue here.

      I agree with your distinction between sports and learning. Note, though, that we both see it as a normative goal; as you put it, a “should.” And I agree.
      But what’s happened, as you also note, is that the “should” gets superseded by the desire to, your words, “earn the top grade.” If your motive is to earn the top grade, granted you may start out by getting there through learning the material better, but it’s also a slippery slope to other ends justifying the means. Just as in sports, it’s easy to go from winning from within the system to winning by going just a little bit outside the system.
      Jeremy, to be clear – is it your opinion that that badminton teams who were ejected for throwing matches should not have been kicked out of the competition?

  2. Rich Sternhell
    Rich Sternhell says:

    As you know, I have been resistant to the analogy of sports issues with civic leadership or academia. But I have come to accept that whether it is throwing a badminton match, using banned substances or paying bonuses to knock out the quarterback, all send the same clear message of winning at any cost. That message can’t help but translate to other fields. Business is now about competing with your rival rather than serving the custormer and academia is about getting the best grade rather than learning the material. We have become an “I” focused society where “I” need to come out on top rather than “we” all have to do well. We can’t choose where we want to be ethical and where it doesn’t matter. Either we choose to live our lives according to a set of moral principles or we give up the right to make that claim. Whether it’s badminton, bike racing or taking a test really doesn’t matter. I tend to use a fairly simple guage…would I be embarrassed if others knew. For me, that is enough.

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      Rich, I think your “I” vs. “we” framing of the issue gets right to the heart of things. In our core ideas, we have celebrated individualism too much, and forgotten the simple idea that man is a social animal. More importantly, the future of society depends more on our ability to to collaborate than on our ability to compete.

  3. Leanne HoaglandSmith
    Leanne HoaglandSmith says:

    This is not the first report nor the last one of what happens when a society moves away from core positive values. In the book from Values to Action, the author, Harry Kraemer provides real life examples of what it takes to be a value driven leader.

    The issue is confusing winning with being the best you can be while still maintaining your core values. Reading an article in the Smithsonian about Jim Thorpe who out of ignorance (did not believe playing some amateur baseball made him a professional athlete) lost his 2 gold champions for something far less serious than cheating. This was when the Olympics had far higher standards than today when professional sports athletes are allowed to complete.

    What is really sad and even more of a concern is these young people are going to be the leaders of tomorrow’s business world. From everything I continue to read, the behaviors of Enron and others you mention Charlie will pale in comparison to the cheating behaviors of these newcomers.

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:


      I could not agree more. People may differ about the particular values they espouse, but if values themselves are lacking, woe is us. And by “values,” I mean principles above self-aggrandizement, typically principles that connect us to other human beings, in the way that Rich describes in his comment below.



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