Did Harvard Mishandle Its Cheating Scandal?

You may have heard that as many as 125 students who took a 2011 Harvard University government class are currently being investigated by school authorities on suspicion of cheating due to widespread similarities in answers recorded on a final take-home test. Richard Levick of Forbes thinks that the school has made a few big PR mistakes in the handling of the “largest academic misconduct scandal” in its history, and we have to agree.

Let’s review:

By releasing the accusations to the public and letting the story hang around in journalists’ news feeds for more than a week, Harvard has all but encouraged Schadenfreude-fueled headlines written by columnists eager to take the mighty Ivy League champ down a notch. Levick’s theory holds that Harvard broke down and shared what should have been confidential information with the press after a year of persistent prodding and rumors—all in the interest of transparency.

Yet the issue of whether the students in this case actually cheated or simply collaborated is still very much up in the air. While the students were not allowed to “collaborate” on the take-home test, they were encouraged to discuss the test questions and to share lecture notes. Is it any wonder that their answers resembled one another? From where we sit, the issue looks very grey; we suspect that poor administrative practices are at least partially to blame.

Harvard already looks bad for choosing to discuss an ongoing investigation. If internal inquiries find no evidence of legitimate cheating, the whole incident will look like a ridiculous witch hunt. It has already inspired a great deal of resentment among the accused students, many of whom remain unemployable because they have not officially been rewarded with diplomas that they were scheduled to receive in 2011.

PR pros: How would you advise Harvard to proceed in this case? At the very least, we think they should clarify their institutional definition of the term “collaboration.”