In 2012, a massive cheating scandal rocked Harvard. Roughly 125 undergraduates in Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress” faced accusations of cheating on a take-home final exam; a majority of these students were eventually asked to temporarily withdraw from school.
The scandal drew national attention and spurred significant changes to the way Harvard responds to academic dishonesty. At the time, administrators hoped to frame the “unprecedented” cheating scandal as a teachable moment; in 2015, after years of planning, administrators debuted an honor code and a brand-new Honor Council—a roughly 30-member body of undergraduates, faculty, and administrators—charged with enforcing it.
Architects of the honor code challenged the Honor Council to go beyond mere policy enforcement. They hoped the body would improve academic culture at the College.
Clad in matching red t-shirts reading ‘Truth,” Honor Council members broadcast across campus a message that a commitment to academic integrity made for a better Harvard education.
“One of the big impetuses for the creation of the honor code and the Honor Council was to facilitate a culture shift on campus when it came to integrity,” said Jonathan G. Jeffrey ’16, who helped draft the honor code and served on the first iteration of the Honor Council.
But in fall 2016, with the Honor Council well into its sophomore year, a new surge of cheating cases surfaced when more than 60 enrollees in the College’s flagship computer science course, Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I” were accused of violating Harvard’s academic integrity policies.
With almost half as many students accused of cheating in CS50 as were implicated in Government 1310, the College finds itself once again facing a rash of academic dishonesty cases.
Former Interim Dean of the College Donald H. Pfister said he was unsurprised—he never thought the Honor Code would have an immediate effect.
“I think we need to give it a chance to settle in,” he said.
Yet, over the past year, the Honor Council’s role on campus has been anything but settled. As the body grappled with the unusually large number of CS50 cases, the future of the Council itself came into question: In March, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana accepted a recommendation that the Honor Council help enforce Harvard’s social group policy, which penalizes members of single-gender social organizations. A body formed to curb cheating may soon put undergraduates in charge of adjudicating their peers’ social lives.
The quick succession of hurdles has left members of the Honor Council, students who have faced the body, and some outside observers seeking to clarify the body’s role on campus. In a recent interview, Council Secretary Brett Flehinger said he hopes to better define the responsibilities of the Honor Council in the next few years.
“The next big thing will be in 2020 when we become an honor code school [because] everyone on this campus will have only been at Harvard when you have an honor code,” he said. “I think that’s when we’ll start to think about what does it mean and what obligations do we have.”
“Things change here at Harvard quickly,” Flehinger added.
In 2013, after nearly three years of planning—and less than a year after news of the Government 1310 scandal first broke—a Committee on Academic Integrity released a report officially recommending that Harvard join peer institutions and implement an honor code.
“It is evident that early and frequent cultural interventions that educate students about what academic integrity is and why it is important are crucial to changing the environment at Harvard,” the report said.
At the time, opinions were mixed on whether the body would be able to quell academic dishonesty at Harvard. Seventeen percent of the Class of 2019, the first to enter Harvard with the honor code, who responded to a survey conducted by The Crimson reported that they had cheated on assignments before coming to college. These students, representing more than one in six incoming freshmen, admitted to academic conduct in violation of Harvard’s academic integrity policy before even setting foot on campus.
Though supporters of the honor code said they were optimistic for change, many students and some faculty said they were indifferent. At the time, government professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 called the proposal “nothing to write home about.”
Former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 was similarly unconvinced.
"I haven’t heard the evidence that the device that is proposed here gets at the problems at hand," he told The Crimson in 2015.
Nonetheless, proponents of the new system said they felt certain the Honor Council could enact a broad culture shift at the College.
“We saw that at schools with honor codes, there was tremendous passion for academic integrity, and students held not just themselves—but classmates—accountable for their actions. And the culture I think in terms of academic integrity was much better,” Jeffrey said.
The Committee on Academic Integrity’s report dedicated a section to “Cultural Interventions,” proposing that freshman orientation events incorporate discussions on academic dishonesty “so that first-year students are exposed to the expectations in joining a shared community of learners.”
The report also suggested that the College communicate its expectations for academic integrity starting with the admissions process, and that administrators periodically remind students of the policy during their time at Harvard.
When the College rolled out the honor code, administrators requested that incoming students write a short “reflection” statement on the policy and held discussion sessions throughout orientation. Also starting that semester, administrators asked undergraduates to sign affirmations of the policy on final papers and assignments, and handed students attendance slips bearing a portion of the honor code during all seated final exams.
"[We] were not expecting that we would institute an honor code, and overnight, there would be a dramatic shift in behavior," Jonathan G. Jeffrey '16 said.
Still, Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 said he was unsure whether the Honor Council has “had an impact on the number of cases of academic dishonesty” at the College to date.
Former Interim Dean of the College Pfister said he thought the Council had improved students’ general awareness of academic integrity.
“The thing about campus culture is that I think that the students are much more aware of expectation, because we have this paragraph now asking, ‘Are you aware of the guidelines about sources, etc.’ It’s a useful reminder, and a very positive thing,” Pfister said.
Jeffrey said that he thinks real cultural change requires more time.
“We knew...that this would not happen overnight, that Harvard is a big place with lots of traditions and lots of subcultures,” Jeffrey said. “[We] were not expecting that we would institute an honor code, and overnight, there would be a dramatic shift in behavior.”
Looking back at the Honor Council’s beginnings, Council Secretary Brett Flehinger said he thought the body largely navigated its first two years with aplomb.
“The role of the Honor Council is to take something that can be divisive about community and knit the community together by bringing everybody—students, faculty, and staff—together, and I think we succeeded in that last year,” Flehinger said.
With the creation of the honor code and the Honor Council, Harvard began involving students in disciplinary procedures—an unusual decision for Harvard that administrators had been hesitant to make.
Several undergraduates who took CS50 last semester and appeared before the Honor Council—as well as one legal expert who advised students accused of cheating in both Government 1310 and CS50—said that hesitancy may have been warranted. In particular, these students and the lawyer, Michael R. Schneider, said the body’s confidentiality policy and its student-staffed peer advising system posed problems during the process.
The Crimson granted these students anonymity to discuss confidential disciplinary proceedings.
Before appearing in front of the Honor Council, accused students receive a packet outlining the body’s “rules of confidentiality.”
“You must refrain from discussing information you learn as a result of the review and from sharing Honor Council materials with anyone other than those who have a need to know,” reads the packet, obtained by The Crimson. The document defines those who “need to know” as a student’s family members, a handful of University administrators, medical and legal professionals, as well as clergy.
The 2016-2017 version of the packet acknowledges that the Honor Council’s process “can seem stressful” and encourages students to reach out to one of the body’s nine Student Academic Integrity Fellows, described as “College students who have been trained in the Honor Council process and who can help answer any question you might have about it.”
Though the Honor Council promises that SAIFs will keep students’ “feelings” private, the document warns that these advisors will report any “discrepancy” in a student’s account of events to other Council members.
“It is important to note that your SAIF is not your advocate,” the packet reads.
Schneider, the Boston lawyer who has advised Harvard students accused of academic dishonesty, said he has “concerns” about the way SAIFs are allowed to pass students’ information back to the Honor Council.
He added he believes accused students need an advisor with whom they can talk freely.
“The fact that you have these SAIFs is a good thing, but unfortunately the problem is that students really need advocates, somebody they can have confidential communications with,” Schneider said. “The students who are young, freshmen and sophomores, they really need someone to talk through the issues with them.”
"I don't want to talk to a random Harvard College student who I've never met before, who maybe lives in my House, about this issue," one student who appeared before the Honor Council said.
Three CS50 enrollees who appeared before the Honor Council to face charges of academic dishonesty, all of whom chose not to use a SAIF, said they did not understand the point of these student advisers.
“I don’t want to talk to a random Harvard College student who I’ve never met before, who maybe lives in my House, about this issue,” said one student, granted anonymity by The Crimson to discuss confidential Honor Council proceedings. “I want to talk to my best friend about it [but] I can’t tell anybody except my mom.”
Multiple members of the Honor Council declined or did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Flehinger declined to discuss these criticisms specifically, but said he thought SAIFs are generally underappreciated.
“I don’t think the SAIFs have ever gotten full credit for what they’ve done,” he said. “I think they have been a huge part of our success and they are an incredibly reassuring presence.”
Flehinger also noted that over fifty percent of students who appeared before the Honor Council in the 2015-2016 academic year requested a SAIF for counseling. Of the 115 cases reviewed by the Honor Council last year, 73 students chose to work with a SAIF or Personal Adviser, a University official affiliated with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, according to the Council’s first annual report.
Since its formation, the Honor Council has heard only cases concerning breaches of academic integrity. But that may change—this spring, Khurana indicated he may significantly expand the body’s charge.
On March 6, Khurana announced he was accepting the majority of recommendations from a report on the College’s social group penalties, including a suggestion that the Honor Council investigate students who violate the policy.
Under the policy, undergraduate members of these groups, starting with the Class of 2021, will be barred from leading recognized student organizations, holding athletic captaincies, or receiving a number of prestigious fellowships.
In its report, the committee behind the recommendations proposed that the Honor Council investigate students who violate the policy by “falsely affirming compliance,” arguing that doing so would breach “an expectation of honesty” at the College.
Recognizing that the proposal goes beyond the Honor Council’s original mandate, the committee recommended that the College either adjust the scope of the Council’s responsibility, or frame violations of the social group policy as breaches of academic integrity.
Following publication of the report, College spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an emailed statement that the Honor Council will be responsible for investigating members of single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations who violate the policy by applying for academic fellowships.
Dane added that the College will employ a separate “trust-based system” for members of single-gender social groups who violate the policy by holding club leadership positions, in part because the College does not classify these positions as “academic.”
“Frankly speaking, if I had known this would be my role on the Honor Council, I would not have joined,” Council member Jake H. Hummer ’17 said at the time.
But Flehinger said he believes the Council “hasn’t been asked to do anything” yet.
“It’s not a new role until we have it, and so I’m not going to worry about what we don’t have in front of us,” Flehinger said. “We have a semester to get through. I care deeply about trying to influence this community, and we have enough to do and so we’re going to focus on that for the time being, and if we’re asked to do anything else...”
—Staff writer Graham W. Bishai can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GrahamBishai.
—Staff writer Hannah Natanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @hannah_natanson.