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Harvard's Cheating Scandal and the Failure of Mentoring

The Harvard cheating scandal has ground to something like its conclusion, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 students being suspended asked to withdraw. There's been a lot of discussion, from different perspectives, about student ethics, educational standards, and what the world is coming to. (Harry Lewis's blog provides some of the smartest inside perspective, shaped by a strong personal viewpoint.) There are those who claim the students are getting a raw deal, while others view those students as symptoms of an ethical collapse. But none of those opinions are based on full information since the school, rightly, will never release the specific details of individual students' misbehavior. College students should face appropriate consequences for their actions, but they should also be allowed to live their bad decisions down.

Some people. including very smart people, are calling on the university to be more open about exactly what went wrong in this particular course (whose design did have some genuine and documented flaws which contributed to the problems). But that will not and should not happen, not because Harvard is circling its institutional wagons (although it might be), but because it has chosen to protect the faculty member involved, a junior professor a few years out of graduate school. That is a sound ethical position for them to take. In fact, Harvard refuses even to name the course or the faculty member involved (although both, at this point, are widely known), and I will follow their lead by leaving him unnamed.

Does this mean the professor is getting off unpunished? No. He is finished at Harvard. They are not protecting a powerful faculty member from the consequences of his actions. They are behaving ethically toward a faculty member they are in the process of firing. His ability to find future employment has already been severely damaged. Nothing is served by damaging his career further with a public report detailing his mistakes. He slipped up out of normal carelessness, with hideous results; there is no question of malice or dishonesty. He should be allowed to try, at least, to rebuild his career. And the truth is, Harvard may have let this faculty member down.

When a junior faculty member messes up this badly, there has almost always been a failure of mentoring. The reason might be the junior faculty member. Not everyone accepts or acts upon the guidance they are offered, and not everyone interprets that guidance well or puts it into practice effectively. But some people are also given bad guidance, or no guidance at all. That is an abdication of professional responsibility.

New PhDs do not turn into fully professional members of the faculty overnight, or by themselves. It is the responsibility of a junior professor's senior colleagues to guide her or his professional development. Everyone at Harvard knows this. And most likely some members of this professor's department were specifically assigned to be this junior colleague's mentors, as an explicit component of their teaching and advising load. Mentoring junior colleagues is not simply part of an obligation to the colleagues themselves, but to the students. If you put students in a classroom with a relatively inexperienced teacher and you give that teacher no professional feedback or guidance, bad things can happen. In this case, bad things did. A large lecture class ended with at least a quarter of the students suspended and more on probation. The school has taken a beating in the press. And a promising young scholar's career has crashed and burned so badly that I can smell the smoke from here. My question is: where were this person's senior colleagues? Where was his department chair? What advice were these people giving him?

It's clear that the course where the cheating happened had a well-established relationship as a gut, whether it developed that reputation before this faculty member took it over or after. Many of the students had taken the class because of this reputation. It is also clear that during the semester when the cheating occurred, Spring 2012, this changed to some extent, and the exam questions became significantly more difficult than the students expected them to be. But the professor is alleged to have spoken about how easy the class was at the start of the semester, which if true suggests that there was some change of direction after the course had begun. It's also well-established that the course assignments were structured in ways that made collaboration, which was explicitly forbidden, fairly easy: four take-home exams which students were given more than a week to complete, during which time they were allowed to use their books, their notes, and the internet but forbidden to discuss the exam with one another. So the exam design created substantial opportunity for cheating (which does not excuse the students, but should still have been avoided).

The faculty member in question was coming to the end of his fourth year at Harvard, which meant he was also undergoing a year-long, make-or-break review. According to Harvard's faculty handbook (which they publish online), he would have undergone an earlier review, designed to give him feedback on his progress, during his second year. If he succeeded in his fourth-year review, he would have been given another four-year contract, a somewhat better job title, and a chance to earn tenure in year seven. If he did not succeed, he would be given a last year teaching at Harvard while he looked for another job. His job title seems not to have changed, which suggests that he did not pass his review and that he will be leaving Harvard after the spring 2013 semester. Whether he was in trouble before the cheating scandal, or whether the scandal itself sank its chances, is impossible to tell.

(That this person has presumably been looking for a new job this year, during the same months in which people have been calling for full public disclosure of his role in the scandal, makes it obvious why Harvard would not release any damaging or embarrassing information. Doing so while he was actively seeking a new job would have done him material harm.)

My question is what the junior professor was told before and during his personnel reviews. Certainly, he would have been advised, repeatedly and emphatically, to pay enough attention to publishing his research. Harvard's research expectations are extremely high, and the junior professor also needed a strong research record for the outside job market (since tenure at Harvard is often a long shot). He would have been told to compile a strong teaching record as well. But exactly what was said to him about teaching is an open question. He would almost certainly have been told both that his teaching should be good, whatever "good" means, but also that he should be careful not to spend so much time on teaching that his research suffered. Teach well, but budget the time you spend teaching. That's already a pretty complicated message for a brand-new professor who's working up all his courses from scratch and learning to teach completely new kinds of courses. (No graduate student oversees a course with hundreds of undergrads and a team of teaching assistants.) But then the really thorny question: what does the university mean when it says good teaching? What actual benchmarks does that imply?

Is the goal to keep your teaching evaluation numbers high? That goal could pretty easily lead a new faculty member to turn a large lecture course into popular gut for students seeking easy A's. And teaching such a course would also be less time-consuming, for someone being urged to protect his weekly research time, than teaching a class with more challenging assignments and tougher expectations. So a young teacher creating a popular if notoriously easy class might think he was acting on the advice he had been given. On the other hand, a young teacher developing a reputation as a soft grader might also get pushback from his colleagues, and be urged to shed that reputation. Even at a school where grade-inflation is the norm, standing out as an easier-than-normal grader is risky.

I'm curious about the timing of the apparent shift in the troubled course's difficulty, with the professor allegedly talking genially about how easy the class was at the beginning of the semester but the exam questions subsequently becoming harder than students expected. It's worth noting that the professor's department would have voted on his review case early in the semester, sometime in January or February, after which the professor would have gotten a formal letter containing professional feedback. If he'd been told, officially or not, that he needed to change his reputation for easy grading, he might have felt pressure to show signs of that change as soon as possible, even if that meant breaking with sound teaching practice by holding students to a standard they did not expect.

That is mere speculation, of course. And it will remain that way, because Harvard is not going to publicize details that might damage their students or their junior employees. Certainly, those individuals should be held responsible for their decisions, and they apparently have been. But the buck does not stop with the junior members of any university community. The responsibility ultimately lies with the people who hold the power within that institution, the administration and the senior faculty, who have been specifically charged with the responsibility to oversee the educational mission. Harvard needs to look hard at itself, as any school does after a scandal. But it is the senior faculty, the people responsible for setting the standards and guiding newer faculty to meet them, who need to look hardest at themselves.

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