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.