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Jay Harris

Although the subject appeared nowhere on the agenda of the first Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) meeting of the year, on October 2, President Drew Faust, Dean Michael D. Smith, and Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris each took the opportunity to make a prepared statement on academic integrity and the investigation of more than 100 undergraduates for plagiarism or impermissible collaboration on a take-home final examination last spring. The College had disclosed the investigation on August 30, just before fall classes began. At that time, Harris spoke for the College. Faust and Smith made statements in the announcement released that day (as did Evelynn Hammonds, dean of Harvard College and chair of the Administrative Board, the body that hears each student’s case individually).

But apart from Faust’s passing allusion to the matter in her Freshman Convocation remarks—where she quoted a message Dean Harris had sent to all students—none of these senior administrators had addressed the issue publicly since, nor did it arise in Faust’s traditional beginning-of-year message to the community as a whole. The concerns raised by such a large investigation of potential cheating obviously matter to the faculty, and so begged to be addressed—but faculty meetings themselves are not fully open forums: attendance is not open to the public, and reporting on contents is subject to speakers’ consent.

The caution in addressing the issue more broadly certainly reflects the confidential nature of Administrative Board proceedings, which are under way—a point emphasized by Faust. It may further reflect uncertainty about the ultimate outcome of the proceedings; given 100-plus students’ varying circumstances, the Ad Board’s decisions may range from mandated withdrawal from the College for a year to exoneration. And hearing all of the evidence in each of the cases and reaching decisions individually is known to be an extremely time-consuming process for Hammonds and other Ad Board members.

Faust outlined general principles of academic conduct, and urged caution in commenting on the cases under review while the Ad Board deliberates. Smith outlined the rationale for the Ad Board as a pedagogical entity, and outlined a broader agenda for FAS to consider teaching practices and communications about expectations and academic values; he then turned the floor over to Harris, who is the point person on the whole cluster of issues, for a more detailed outline of research and potential FAS actions during the year.

President Faust: “The highest expectations for our students”

Faust had no sooner gaveled the meeting to order at 4:00 than she welcomed the faculty and delivered this message forthwith:

Before we launch into our main agenda, I want to say a word about something that has been much in the air and much on our minds these past few weeks.  

As all of you know, the Ad Board is in the process of investigating a set of allegations arising out of a spring course in the College. Dean Smith wrote to all of you about the situation—and about the larger issues at hand—at the start of the term, and Dean Harris wrote to all of our undergraduates in a similar vein.

First, the news of the Ad Board cases has highlighted a set of issues that are fundamental to what we do. While we need to allow the Ad Board process to run its course before drawing any conclusions from the range of cases presented, the situation is obviously unsettling to all of us concerned about our students and their education. I hope it will provide an impetus for us to reflect on the responsibilities we all face as educators in sustaining the most constructive possible culture for learning across the college and the university. By that I mean a climate that sets the highest expectations for our students—one that affirms the values and norms we see as integral to the learning process, one that recognizes both the benefits of collaboration and its appropriate limits, one that enables us to listen to and learn from our students’ concerns at the same time we try to guide them in ways that bring out their best selves, and ours. Dean Harris said something in his letter that I have paraphrased often in the past few weeks and will repeat again here: there is no achievement without integrity. It’s a simple truth, and an important one. 

And so, as we move further into the new year, I hope that all of us will find occasions for conversations with one another and with our students about how we engage and assess our students; how we reinforce essential academic and ethical values.

I have framed all this in very broad terms—and deliberately so. The Ad Board is in the process of reviewing a large number of pending cases. All of us share a strong interest in assuring the fairness of that process and supporting the Ad Board’s efforts to arrive at careful, fact-based judgments in each individual case. For that reason, I hope you will understand that this is not a meeting in which I, or the deans, intend to speak to the details of the pending cases, individually or collectively. And I hope that all of us here can approach these issues in a similar spirit, at this meeting and outside it, being careful not to make assumptions or assertions about matters that are still under review. I appreciate your thoughtfulness in that regard.

Dean Smith:  “Constructive engagement in nurturing our values as a community of learners”

Following routine business announcements, Dean Smith returned to “the topic that President Faust introduced at the outset,” reinforcing her message about procedural caution and fairness, but urging the faculty to address matters of substance:

I would like to reinforce an important distinction that the president made. Our values and respect for the integrity and fairness of the process do not permit us to talk about the details of the cases currently before the Administrative Board. However, please do not take this to mean that you should shy away from the topic of academic integrity. In fact, I ask that you please talk about it—with your colleagues, with your students, with your graduate students. Shortly I will ask Jay Harris to come up and talk about how the Committee on Academic Integrity will help facilitate those efforts, but know that we support and encourage your constructive engagement in nurturing our values as a community of learners. In fact, it is only with it that we will advance our goals. 

I would also like to say a few things about the Administrative Board. Though we use terms like “cases” and “findings” in reference to its activities, it’s important to remember that the Administrative Board’s mission is largely pedagogical in nature.  In fact, most of the cases it deals with have nothing to do with student discipline. They have to do with requested exceptions to our rules [such as requests for leaves of absence, to make up a final exam for medical reasons, etc.]….

But even in disciplinary cases, education is the principal objective. In short, the Board works with students to help them understand that behavior matters and actions have consequences, to give them an opportunity to reflect on their conduct, their values and their aspirations for themselves as students at Harvard and for their lives beyond our walls.

The Board’s process is also designed to resolve cases both confidentially and fairly. Under the Board process, students with disciplinary cases have opportunities to present their understanding of what happened, both in writing and to a three-person subcommittee of the Board. They also have the right to consult with a representative who is an officer of the FAS. The Board takes its responsibilities to the students very seriously and carefully examines the facts and circumstances of every individual case.

We should be careful about drawing any conclusions, about the matter in general or about specific situations, while the administrative process is pending. Although the cases should inspire a constructive conversation about academic integrity on campus, they should not be allowed to diminish the good work or reputation of our outstanding student body. 

So let me say a few words about that wider discussion.

Ours is a learning community. The faculty, our graduate students, our undergraduates, and the staff all play important roles in it. 

It is as a community that we will most meaningfully and effectively engage these issues. We must and we will address academic integrity in its complexity, looking at all the various parts. How we design our courses; how we engage and assess our students; how all of us involved in the teaching enterprise—faculty, TFs, TAs [teaching fellows and teaching assistants]—share best practices within and across departments; and how we communicate with our undergraduate students about our expectations and, perhaps even more important, our values.

Smith then gave the floor to Dean Harris. In so doing, Smith importantly broadened the prospective response to the specific undergraduate conduct in question beyond the Ad Board’s investigations and findings; this emphasis on pedagogy, faculty standards for teaching and communication within their courses, and more, involves FAS’s educational practices in general.

Jay Harris: “Student-facing” and “faculty-facing” agendas

Harris, reviewing the past work of the Committee on Academic Integrity (whose members include students, faculty, resident deans, and others—see a summary of its work in this previous report) and its 2012-2013 objectives, did not speak from a prepared text; this is a summary of his principal points.

In early 2011, he noted, the committee surveyed students, faculty members, and teaching fellows to probe their attitudes toward issues of academic integrity and their conduct, but as he reported that fall, the response rate among students was too low to assure meaningful results. In the 2011-2012 academic year, the committee examined honor codes in use at other institutions and other mechanisms to encourage proper student academic conduct. The committee also had conversations with departmental directors of undergraduate studies and head tutors on how best to communicate with students about each discipline’s expectations and academic ethos, in settings such as sophomore tutorials; those discussions continue, he said.

Now, the committee has formed two subcommittees, one “student-facing” and one “faculty-facing,” which will address issues separately but also overlap, convene to share findings, and so on.

Student-facing queries. Harris said the subcommittee would continue to examine honor codes, their suitability to Harvard, and whether they might be adapted for use in the College. He also said the subcommittee would examine how to move past “policing and discipline and rules” (all of which would remain important, he cautioned) to find other ways to “fully embrace a culture of scholarship” and the importance of integrity. The subcommittee would be interested in exploring when and where to have such discussions with undergraduates—he mentioned freshman orientation, sophomore tutorials, in the Houses. He was pleased to note a much higher degree of faculty compliance this fall with FAS’s policy of explicitly spelling out collaboration policies, citation practices, and matters of integrity at the beginning of each course and in course materials given to students.

Faculty-facing queries. This subcommittee, Harris said, would address pedagogy and assessment broadly. The members would examine take-home versus sit-down examinations, and guidelines for well-crafted exams that might be useful to new teaching faculty members or professors preparing new courses. The subcommittee would also engage in a conversation with faculty members aimed at clarifying the goals for courses and appropriate assessments for students’ work in them; for courses aimed at developing individual student skills, an individual examination, versus courses where collaborative projects are essential, and therefore some sort of collaborative assessment might be warranted. Harris indicated that there was research available on such matters, and that the subcommittee would explore and share its findings, and make recommendations on best practices.

The subcommittees would bring their findings together, Harris said, and jointly address the larger issue of how the entire community could best be “engaged with the commitment” to a climate of academic integrity. He intended to bring recommendations for action to the FAS before the end of the academic year.

Next Steps

The cautions about not jumping ahead of the Ad Board apparently were taken to heart; no one from the audience addressed questions about the presentations to any of the speakers.

Harris, having disclosed the large investigation on August 30, promised then that in light of its scope and seriousness, a report on the Ad Board’s aggregate findings and disposition of cases would be released when all the proceedings are concluded. As dean of undergraduate education, he continues to meet with departments, directors of undergraduate studies, and others to encourage discussions of academic integrity, citation practices, plagiarism, and related matters, and to prompt better faculty communications with students and adherence to the existing policies on spelling out permissible collaboration on classwork.

Broad discussions of pedagogy—course design, the nature of assignments and examinations, and even the signals professors send about their expectations and the demands of each course—apparently await the outcome of the Committee on Academic Integrity’s recommendations and formal FAS review and legislation next spring.