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Michael D. Smith

Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean Michael D. Smith this morning e-mailed a message to Harvard College faculty, staff, and students, reporting on the investigation of academic misconduct announced last August: indications that nearly half of the students enrolled in a spring 2012 government course had collaborated inappropriately on the take-home final examination. A majority of the students investigated have been disciplined—more than half of them very seriously, in fact—as a result of the Administrative Board proceedings.

“As this semester begins,” Smith introduced his message, with its very innocuous subject line “Message from Dean Smith” (full text appears below),

I write again to shine a bright light on the important issue of academic integrity and what we are doing on this issue. The large number of Administrative Board cases this past fall highlighted the fact that we, as a faculty, must redouble our efforts to communicate clearly and unambiguously to our undergraduates about academic integrity. As I affirmed in August, the bright light is and has always been focused on our need to improve how we talk with students about this critical issue. It never was, as some have mistakenly assumed, to shine a bright light on any student or other member of our community. Let me be crystal clear: we all can do better.

As an indication of the magnitude of the problem, Smith noted—after explaining Administrative Board procedures—that

somewhat more than half of the…cases this past fall required a student to withdraw from the College for a period of time. Of the remaining cases, roughly half the students received disciplinary probation, while the balance ended in no disciplinary action.

According to the Ad Board, a requirement to withdraw is imposed in this circumstance:

Action taken when a student’s conduct is unacceptable and the Board has determined that the student needs to be separated from the College in order to gain perspective on his or her actions, or to address and resolve his or her difficulties. In all cases, the Board requires the student to leave the Harvard community completely and to hold a full-time, paid, non-academic job in a non-family situation, for at least six consecutive months before petitioning for readmission to the College. The length of withdrawal normally ranges from two to four terms. Readmission to the College after a requirement to withdraw is not automatic, and requires a vote of the full Administrative Board. A student readmitted after a requirement to withdraw for disciplinary reasons is readmitted in good standing (unless the misconduct also resulted in an unsatisfactory academic record). Ordinarily, a second requirement to withdraw (whether for a disciplinary case or academic review) is final.

Probation is imposed as follows:

Disciplinary probation puts a student on notice that her or his conduct gives considerable cause for concern. A student on disciplinary probation is expected to pay very close attention to his or her conduct, both during the period of probation and after. The Board will likely respond more seriously (e.g., requirement to withdraw) to further infractions. A student is relieved of probation at the end of the time period set by the Board, provided there has been no further misconduct.

The board may also “admonish” a student (“a warning from the Board that a student has violated the rules or standards of conduct in the College, and it begins a state of jeopardy”); “take no action” (“This response indicates that a serious accusation was made but was not or could not be substantiated”); or declare a “scratch” (“A finding by the Board that nothing wrong occurred, or that there are no grounds for action. A decision of scratch is recorded in a student’s file to signal that the Board found no fault.”).

Thus, three-quarters or more of the students whose examinations were reviewed appear to have been found to have violated the College’s policy on collaborating on the final examination, or to have committed academic conduct that is regarded as serious cause for concern. (It is understood that some of the requirements to withdraw were for terms longer than one academic year.)

Understandably, then, Smith reiterated that, “As I said earlier, we all can do better.” To that end, he turned to the work of the Committee on Academic Integrity (CAI) chaired by dean of undergraduate education Jay M. Harris. “The CAI is developing recommendations to strengthen our culture of academic honesty and to promote awareness of ethical standards in scholarship,” Smith wrote. “Over the past year, the CAI has begun identifying possible concrete steps we could take, as a community of faculty and students. This spring we will begin numerous discussions of the recommendations being considered by the CAI.”

As previously reported, Harris’s committee has been pursuing “student-facing” and “faculty-facing” initiatives through two subcommittees. Smith summarized their work as follows:

The first subcommittee is focused on nurturing a culture of integrity on campus within our student population. The potential recommendations range from the adoption of some form of an honor code to guide students, which the students would have a strong role in creating, to the creation of new opportunities to engage both graduate and undergraduate students in reflecting on scholarly values. The latter could involve programming in the Houses and course modules on scholarly values that would be integrated into our existing curricula and tailored to specific concentrations.

The second subcommittee is largely faculty-facing. What can faculty do to educate students about academic integrity, both pedagogically and through assessments and assignments? This subcommittee is making recommendations regarding best practices for properly structured and administered assessments of student competency. It is developing a repository, as a resource for faculty, of well-crafted exams and generating concrete strategies and examples for integrating academic integrity into course curricula. It is identifying methods to use with assignment and test generation that could help naturally foster academic integrity, and it is grappling with questions of how unrelenting technological progress affects pedagogy and puts pressure on the teaching of academic integrity.

Smith stressed that “the preceding are potential recommendations. The next steps are to begin wider faculty and student discussions of this committee’s findings and potential recommendations. This is a time for communal reflection and action. We are responsible for creating the community in which our students study and we all thrive as scholars.”

Discussion

Several points merit further exploration.

•Guidance on collaboration. At the beginning of the spring term, this week, Dean Harris’s office reminded faculty members to be more explicit with their guidance to students about the bounds of acceptable collaboration on academic work, and by several accounts—read the Crimson’s here—professors were careful to be explicit in initial class meetings and language included in their course syllabi.

•The status of seniors. The College did not comment on the implications of the Administrative Board proceedings for seniors enrolled in the class who were to have graduated last spring; doing so might enable individuals to be identified, and Ad Board proceedings are held in strict confidence. (It is understood that some seniors may have been among those under investigation before Commencement; they would have been permitted to go through graduation exercises, but would have had their diplomas withheld pending investigation, and thus been provided with some statement that they had taken the required number of courses but that their degrees had not yet been granted. It is not known whether any seniors granted their diplomas became the subject of the Ad Board inquiries later, nor how such instances, if any, were handled if such students were found to have violated the collaboration policy.)

•Tuition refunds. Because the cases took so long to review individually, Smith noted—extending into December, the end of the fall term—all students who “ultimately withdrew sometime in this period” are being treated as having been required to withdraw as of September 30, 2012. This means, according to the College schedule, that their financial obligation for tuition is $4,697, with room fees calculated on a per-diem basis and board fees prorated.

•Teaching. Among the concerns raised about this investigation were the conditions under which the course itself was conducted and the nature of the (eight-day) take-home final examination, during which students were not supposed to collaborate. Dean Smith’s note obviously refers to exploring best practices for examinations, as well as other possible forms of influencing faculty behavior. It does not so far suggest a mandatory change in examination practices, nor other strict regulation of faculty members’ conduct of their courses and assessments.

•Faculty and student discussion. Of course, any regulation of faculty members’ conduct of their classes would require ample discussion and their assent. In the same vein, a move toward student self-regulation, through an honor code, would seem to depend on student initiative.

(See the discussion of student honor codes at Princeton and Stanford, here. As reported, the Princeton honor code “holds students responsible for academic integrity on campus and governs all submissions of written work, examinations, tests and quizzes.” The Stanford Honor Code “is an undertaking of the students, individually and collectively: that they will not give or receive aid in examinations; that they will not give or receive unpermitted aid in class work, in the preparation of reports, or in any other work that is to be used by the instructor as the basis of grading; that they will do their share and take an active part in seeing to it that others as well as themselves uphold the spirit and letter of the Honor Code.”)

To date, such discussions, if any, have been out of public view. When President Drew Faust, Dean Smith, and Dean Harris addressed the issue during an FAS faculty meeting last October, they asked that discussion be restrained during the Ad Board proceedings—and it was, to the point of invisibility. Even more than formal faculty discussion of legislative proposals that may emanate from Harris’s committee later this spring, it seems important that the “communal reflection and action” Smith called for today take place, vigorously—and that it not be confined solely to “wider faculty and student discussions of this committee’s findings and potential recommendations” that will certainly take place. Freshmen received more counseling on academic integrity and collaboration this past fall, and at least some House masters or deans are understood to have begun discussions of the issues with their resident undergraduates, but the extent and nature of those conversations have not been reported; there have not been other public forums.

Smith’s e-mail was not accompanied by any statement or commentary by Faust, Harris, or Harvard College dean Evelynn Hammonds (who chairs the Ad Board), and no College or University officials were available for comment or questions about the contents of his statement or other aspects of the issue.

At some level, it is very likely that the community conversation on the academic misconduct and findings of the investigation will begin soon. The Harvard Alumni Association winter meetings are being held on campus this weekend, and the Board of Overseers and Corporation also meet. As well, the first FAS faculty meeting of the spring term is scheduled for February 5. Updated 3:45 p.m.: A discussion of the Committee on Academic Integrity’s work so far is scheduled for the February 5 FAS faculty meeting.

 

The Dean’s Full Text

Dean Smith’s message takes pains to explain the Ad Board’s operation and processes. The full text of his e-mail follows.

Dear faculty, students, and staff of Harvard College,

As this semester begins, I write again to shine a bright light on the important issue of academic integrity and what we are doing on this issue. The large number of Administrative Board cases this past fall highlighted the fact that we, as a faculty, must redouble our efforts to communicate clearly and unambiguously to our undergraduates about academic integrity. As I affirmed in August, the bright light is and has always been focused on our need to improve how we talk with students about this critical issue. It never was, as some have mistakenly assumed, to shine a bright light on any student or other member of our community. Let me be crystal clear: we all can do better.

So, I write again to encourage honest conversations across campus about how we as faculty and College staff can better engage undergraduates in discussions of academic integrity, instill in them a strong commitment to academic integrity, and help them understand what constitutes violations of academic integrity in our rapidly changing world. Since it has also become clear to me this past semester that some in our community – and the world around us – do not understand the purpose and processes of the Harvard College Administrative Board, a part of whose task is to address violations of academic integrity in our community, I also write to explain our carefully considered Administrative Board processes. In this context, I say a few final, general words about this fall’s Administrative Board cases. The work associated with these cases is complete, and every student contacted by the Administrative Board has been informed of the disposition of his or her individual case. Consistent with the Faculty’s rules and our obligations to our students, we will not, and cannot, speak to specific student outcomes, now or in the future. While the fall cases are complete, our work on academic integrity is far from done.

The Administrative Board

The Administrative Board is the Faculty committee responsible for the application and enforcement of undergraduate academic regulations and standards of social conduct. Established in 1890, the Administrative Board is among the oldest of the Faculty’s committees and it follows well-established, carefully considered procedures and practices that are designed to further the educational mission of the College.

The Board’s work encompasses three areas: 1) evaluation of requests (called petitions) for exceptions to academic policies or rules; 2) review of students’ academic performance and fulfillment of degree requirements; and 3) resolution of alleged infractions of College rules, breaches of community standards, or other disciplinary matters. Underlying every bit of this work is the Board’s primary concern: the educational and personal growth of undergraduates, both as individuals and as members of an academic community. 

Within this broad mission, the Board’s disciplinary processes are designed to ensure the fair treatment of each student. Each student’s case is handled individually, even if connected to other cases. The Board strictly protects student confidentiality, both during a case and after it has concluded. During the process, each student receives a complete copy of the information the Board has about his or her case, including any statements that were received during the Board’s investigation, and the student works closely with a Board representative throughout the case. Each student is afforded at least three formal opportunities to make his or her voice heard:  at an initial conversation with the Board’s secretary, later in a written statement the student is invited to submit, and finally through the opportunity to appear personally before a subcommittee of the Board.

The Administrative Board procedures are rigorous and comprehensive. The review process is necessarily laborious, as it allows each student multiple opportunities to present his or her perspective on the events in question. The review of a case takes exactly as long as it needs to take in order to ensure that a student receives a full and fair review, conforming to the high bar that the Faculty has set for the Board’s proceedings. The Board’s emphasis is on maximizing the potential for its process to create a teachable, if difficult, moment for students.

Since the Administrative Board reviews petitions of many kinds, I cannot stress strongly enough the importance of not making assumptions regarding the reasons for any particular student’s absence from campus. A plan to study abroad, or the need to take time off due to a health issue, would go before the Board, and both result in a student’s absence from campus. It is simply irresponsible to assume a student’s absence is necessarily disciplinary in nature, and I urge all members of our community to forgo this sort of guesswork.

Consistent with the Faculty’s rules and our obligations to our students, we do not report individual outcomes of Administrative Board cases, but only report aggregate statistics. In that tradition, the College reports that somewhat more than half of the Administrative Board cases this past fall required a student to withdraw from the College for a period of time. Of the remaining cases, roughly half the students received disciplinary probation, while the balance ended in no disciplinary action.

As we promised in August, the Administrative Board took the time necessary during the fall to guarantee that every student’s case was reviewed and resolved individually, under the rules and procedures approved by the Faculty. At the same time, we recognize that our commitment to resolving each case individually, combined with the unprecedented number and complexity of cases this fall, resulted in a process that spread the resolution of this particular set of cases over a period of time much longer than the time span of the precipitating events. Specifically, the first cases in this set were resolved in late September and the last cases were completed in December. The time span of the resolutions in this set had an undesirable interaction with our established schedule for tuition refunds. To create a greater amount of financial equity for all students who ultimately withdrew sometime in this period, we are treating, for the purpose of calculating tuition refunds, all these students as having received a requirement to withdraw on September 30, 2012.

Ongoing Efforts to Promote Academic Integrity

As I said earlier, we all can do better, and Harvard College has several efforts underway to promote academic integrity and a deeper understanding of it within our community. Chief among these is the work of the Committee on Academic Integrity (CAI) – formed 18 months ago, chaired by the College’s Dean of Undergraduate Education, Jay M. Harris, and composed of faculty, students, and staff. The CAI is developing recommendations to strengthen our culture of academic honesty and to promote awareness of ethical standards in scholarship. Over the past year, the CAI has begun identifying possible concrete steps we could take, as a community of faculty and students. This spring we will begin numerous discussions of the recommendations being considered by the CAI.

Two subcommittees of the CAI are worthy of further mention here. The first subcommittee is focused on nurturing a culture of integrity on campus within our student population. The potential recommendations range from the adoption of some form of an honor code to guide students, which the students would have a strong role in creating, to the creation of new opportunities to engage both graduate and undergraduate students in reflecting on scholarly values. The latter could involve programming in the Houses and course modules on scholarly values that would be integrated into our existing curricula and tailored to specific concentrations.

The second subcommittee is largely faculty-facing. What can faculty do to educate students about academic integrity, both pedagogically and through assessments and assignments?  This subcommittee is making recommendations regarding best practices for properly structured and administered assessments of student competency. It is developing a repository, as a resource for faculty, of well-crafted exams and generating concrete strategies and examples for integrating academic integrity into course curricula. It is identifying methods to use with assignment and test generation that could help naturally foster academic integrity, and it is grappling with questions of how unrelenting technological progress affects pedagogy and puts pressure on the teaching of academic integrity.

I want to emphasize that the preceding are potential recommendations. The next steps are to begin wider faculty and student discussions of this committee’s findings and potential recommendations. This is a time for communal reflection and action. We are responsible for creating the community in which our students study and we all thrive as scholars.

Sincerely yours,

Michael D. Smith