Friday, August 31, 2012

Harvard course: 125 students copy a take-home exam

B Chimp Yen has informed me about a mass cheating scandal at Harvard; see e.g. these sources. BBC and other outlets wouldn't tell you the name of the course.

However, good enough Internet users need approximately 1 minute to find out which course it was. Yes, it was "Introduction to Congress" (Government E-1310 23500) taught by Matthew Platt.

The minimum number of students in the course is 250. The actual number was slightly higher, 279. And 125 students, almost one-half of the class, apparently copied a take-home exam from the same source, despite an easily understandable explicit ban on this method of writing. With this degree of plagiarism, the author of the original text is almost as published as Shakespeare. ;-)

The tuition for this course is $1,045 for undergraduates and $2,000 for graduates.

If you interpret this Harvard course as a factory producing future U.S. Congressmen, U.S. Congresswomen, and other U.S. Congresspersons, you may easily estimate that about 1/2 of the members of the U.S. Congress at every moment are crooks.

I am not surprised by this discovery, especially in the case of undergrads. As I have understood them during the years I taught at that school, the typical Harvard undergraduates don't strikingly differ from average college students of the same age. Much of their above-the-average success in their later life is due to the Harvard degree itself (and contacts with similarly influential people they could establish), not due to their vastly greater skills. (When it comes to physics, you only start to see dramatically above-the-average skills if you look at the grad students which have passed a much stricter filter.) They're under more significant pressure to be excellent. And in some cases, "easy ways out" seem to be tolerated if not supported. And the students have ordinary human passions and hobbies much like other young people.

Well, I would bet that this mass plagiarism wasn't found by the instructor himself. Why? Simply because the students have to decide in advance whether it would be acceptable to copy the take-home exam. The personality of the instructor is the key piece of information in such decisions. If one-half of the students do such a thing, it shows that there is a widespread belief that the instructor would take it easy if he figured out what was going on.

[When I read some articles more carefully, I learned that the scandal was indeed found by a teaching assistant, not the instructor, in May.]

And yes, I just can't get rid of the feeling that the instructor is similar to Cornel West, another black professor who was a major source of grade inflation and pro-lazy-student populism at Harvard (aside from the rap music he helped to record). Recall that when ex-Harvard President Larry Summers dared to suggest that Cornel West should have focused on the quality of his scholarly activities, Cornel West got extremely pis*ed off, moved to Princeton, and continued his nuclear war against Larry Summers for years.
Update, August 2nd: The New York Times reveals that my guess was 100% correct. The cheating students said that Prof Platt has promised the students to give 120 A's away – and it was even OK not to attend the lectures and discussion sessions.
In a graduate course allowing undergraduates that I have taught, two students decided to cheat in a simpler way than to copy things from a classmate. They just waited once my official homework solutions were posted on the web, then they copied them (and changed the notation only by so modest "mutations" that it was impossible that the similarity would be coincidental), and they submitted them with a lame excuse why they're just a little bit late. Those two students did it repeatedly – I forgot the exact number but they may have done it throughout most of the course.

Your humble correspondent and his teaching assistant easily found out what was going on, at least in these two cases, and we were unlucky: one of the students was a female undergraduate and one of them was an ethnic Indian male. (No, I really don't think an undergrad should get an A just because he or she dares to register for a grad course. He or she may try but the same rules must apply, otherwise such "brave acts" wouldn't be brave at all and they would really become tools to get easy credit and good grades for free.) My teaching assistant was actually the main driving force in our activities to make sure that these students would be punished. Not much happened at the end. I was just afraid to push for justice too much because it was already during (or after?) the anti-Summers politically correct witch hunts and I didn't want to multiply my problems – to experience even more accusations that I was a sexist, racist, and all these outrageous politically correct labels that make the Ivy League environment pretty much insufferable for honest conservatives.

Harvard – with its unregulated terror by the feminist sluts and the professional blacks – just didn't provide me with the basic needs that are necessary to do the teaching work well and I am a realist, not a person who excessively enjoys the fights against wind mills.

While our discovery of the cheating students was totally impartial, I am confident that the composition of students who do such things and instructors who tolerate it or indirectly support it isn't sex-blind or color-blind. I would love to see the detailed composition of the students registered for the course and those who cheated and their sex, ethnicity, race, and other information. I guess that we won't learn such things, will we?

Well, if I won't be told any cold hard data, I will continue to believe in the obvious hypothesis that the females and the students of color – aside from other would-be weak groups that are systematically given advantages by the suffocating politically correct racist and sexist atmosphere on the campuses – are probably significantly overrepresented among the students who have cheated and the race of the instructor isn't quite a coincidence, either. It has to be so simply because it's much harder to punish these groups that are vastly more protected by the "establishment" so they may afford to do many things that others can't. My own experience has taught me a lot about the inner workings of these asymmetries.

Needless to say, "black agenda in politics" is one of the instructor's three major "research topics" so I would dare to suggest that his being black is a significant contribution to the reasons why he's at Harvard faculty in the first place. And when it comes to the would-be tough statement by the current Harvard President, Drew Gilpin Faust, I think that her words are hypocritical, too. She hasn't done 5% of what Summers had done to fight similar trends.


  1. Dear Lubos: some quantitative questions to feed me with data for a local comparation. How many students gets enrolled in an average undergrad course in Harvad? What's that same average in graduate school? What is the usual percentual of students who are approved in those courses? How many hours a professor is supposed to lecture by week, month, semester? What is the average salary of a junior/full professor in physics, engineer, computer science and medicine? The last question now applied to people who just got a BSc or "Dip-Ing" from Harvad? Thanks indeed by yours inside view!

  2. Scandalous and so bad for Harvard's image. It looks like it is the instructor's "unwilling will" to know...

  3. Hi NumCracker, I am not familiar with all the data but there are about 3,000 courses at Harvard and of course, most of them are much smaller (by number of students) than this one. This one is one of the small number of courses with 200-500 students, usually basic courses. Most courses I used to be teaching would have 30 students or fewer, and of course the figure gets even smaller, 10 or even fewer, for graduate courses.

    I suspect that the less one expects from someone's research, the more likely it is he or she is teaching large courses, but it's not a sharp one-to-one relationship.

    It's typical to teach only 1 course per semester. Then there are breaks, semesters when it may drop to zero. There's this sabbatic (Jewish-Saturday-like) leave every 7 semesters or how it works.

    I really don't know the current salary figures. Junior Faculty have $50,000-100,000 a year at famous enough universities. I know places where it can be only $40,000. At prestigious schools, with rather "common" grants that also cover summer salary etc., one may get above $100,000 on the annual tax return.

    Full professors usually have higher salaries but even for the top ones, you won't get much above $250,000 a year or so. I am not aware of exact salary differences between different fields.

  4. Just to be snarky,these students are apparently too stupid to get away with cheating on a take home exam...What are they doing at Harvard in the first place?

  5. BTW: Are you aware Lubos that 95% of public (federal) Universities in Brazil are in the largest strike in the history of that country? Professors and students are fighting by decent investments in education, while the government uses the "European economical crisis" as an apologize to invest such money on other "internal priorities". Would you please write a post about how important higher education is still considered to be in Europe despite of the crisis ?

  6. Your eyes will glaze over:
    You are getting sleepy....

  7. Simply prepping for a life of fraud on Wall St and Washington!

    How many daddies will cover this up?

  8. The course you link to is an extension school course. These are not Harvard students. They are regular folks, not vetted in any way by Harvard. Call the jokes and snark about future congressmen, etc. don't apply here.

  9. "I will continue to believe in the obvious hypothesis that the females and the students of color [...] are probably significantly overrepresented among the students who have cheated"

    I failed to see the 'obvious', would you mind to explain Lubos?


  10. I once thought that I cheated on a calculus test, but I apparently did not. The teacher put the answers to the test that the group before us took on the his door, so I studied them (did not bring a copy of the answers with me just studied them). At the end of the test the teacher asked who had seen the answers, well naturally no one raised their hand even though I knew one guy who had seen them. Turns out that he was going to give extra credit to anyone who admitted seeing them, because in 20 years no one had even thought of looking at his door, thus no one was interested in coming to see if he would give them extra help before the test, and he thought that anyone who came for extra help should get credit. Odd thinking I admit, but he did not call it cheating.

  11. Dear Michael, I have actually explained why this expectation is obvious. It's because these groups are given various politically correct advantages and their sins are often overlooked because people are afraid of being accused of discrimination. This environment inevitably leads the groups to adapt and acquire a higher level of cheating and other things because it can be afforded.

  12. No, you're wrong. These are regular Harvard students - just like all the media reported. Just look at the bottom of the page I linked to. It lists tuition for undergraduate Harvard students and graduate Harvard students. Like other courses, it's also offered externally which is why I could find a copy on the Extension School website but a vast majority of the students are Harvard students.

  13. Lubos, you are being unfair to women and minority students. The women and minorities in my classes work as hard as the white men and show more and no less proclivity to taking the easy way out.