Email searching scandal a distraction from main problem: Widespread cheating by Harvard undergraduate students

Nathan Mitchell, Asst. News Editor

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Harvard University searched the email accounts of 16 resident deans to determine who leaked information about how the deans should advise students implicated in the spring 2012 cheating scandal.

The search found that one of the resident deans, who acts as an academic mentor and lives in the dormitories, forwarded a confidential administration email to a student the dean was advising, and did not directly release it to news outlets.

The events strike some as an invasion of privacy, however the administration committed only a violation of internal policies for which it should apologize for.

Harvard’s information technology department queried only the subject lines of emails in the deans’ accounts used for official university business, according to a statement by Michael Smith, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, and Dean Evelynn Hammonds.

Harvard faculty policy states that the university can search these accounts, but only after giving advanced notice, Jake New wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Smith and Hammonds acknowledged that faculty members were not told of the search until almost six months after it occurred.

They defended the university’s actions as protecting the privacy of the resident dean who forwarded the email as well as the students implicated in the cheating scandal.

Most of the frustration directed towards the University’s administration stems from a gulf between the protections guaranteed by policy, and the privacy protections expected by faculty members.

“I think what the administration did was creepy,” Mary C. Waters, a Harvard sociology professor, told the New York Times.

“This action violates the trust I once had that Harvard would never do such a thing,” she said.

“From a strictly legal standpoint, employees generally do not have a right to privacy when using their employers’ computers or e-mail services,” New wrote.

While recent events may unsettle the Harvard faculty and privacy advocates, they distract from the more serious cheating scandal.

Of the 279 students enrolled in the “Introduction to Congress” course in spring semester 2012, nearly half may have collaborated or plagiarized their answers on a take-home final exam, reported The New York Times.

The university forced out around 70 students in March 2012 but did not specify the exact number of students it disciplined in other ways.

More important than who cheated on the exam is why such a large portion of the class did so and thought it was acceptable.

Some of the accused students said most thought collaboration on take-home tests, while not allowed, was widely accepted.

Other students said they simply compared notes.

Whatever the reasons, the case underscores widespread issues of academic dishonesty.

Surveys of college and university students indicate that students have relaxed opinions towards behaviors like collaboration, acquiring previous tests online, or learning a test’s questions before taking the exam.

(Professors overwhelmingly regard these as serious offenses.)

A study in the Journal of Business Ethics found that increased availability of online tools, such as copy and paste and previous papers led to higher rates of plagiarism.

“Studies of student behavior and attitudes show that a majority of students violate standards of academic integrity to some degree, and that high achievers are just as likely to do it as others,” Richard Perez-Pena wrote in The New York Times.

“Moreover, there is evidence that the problem has worsened over the last few decades.”

Before we address concerns of privacy in the workplace, we should try to solve the problem of academic dishonesty endemic in our society.

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