Posted by on September 18, 2012

I imagine that just about everyone has heard about the Harvard cheating scandal at this point, but just in case you haven’t, here is a quick summary:  Roughly 125 students are under investigation for cheating on a take-home exam, which appears to be the final exam, in a class in the Government department entitled “Introduction to Congress”. This is 125 suspected cheaters out of a total class size of 279.   A Bloomberg article describes the class as “relatively easy” — which is doubtlessly a diplomatic description — and “popular”.    The apparent cheating was discovered when a teaching fellow noticed similarities in the exams and brought them to the attention of  Matthew Platt, the Assistant Professor who taught the class.  Apparently “electronic communication” was used in the cheating, which is allegedly the largest academic misconduct scandal known at the school.

Now, this story works for me on a whole series of levels.  First, there is the fact that the parents of 279 pupils are paying more than $60,000 a year to have their little darlings “educated” (and the quotation marks are deliberate) by an Assistant Professor in what is obviously a farce of a class taken only for purposes of “padding” a GPA.  But even this Assistant Professor cannot be bothered to grade the final exams but instead turns them over to a teaching assistant for the slog.   Then there is the fact that the class is in the Government department, which is the preferred habitat of the future political leaders of our country, who are never the best and brightest and who therefore crave these kinds of easy grades.

But here is the best part: Jay Harris, the Dean of Undergraduate Education,  explained that “Technology has shifted the way people think about intellectual property, the way people think about communicating with each other.”  In other words: it’s not their fault.  When they were swapping answers by e mail, or plagiarising entire paragraphs they found on the Internet, they obviously didn’t realize that they were doing something wrong.  The technology is to blame and the students just need some reminders about the meaning of academic honesty in this technologically enabled age.

Harvard is the center of East Coast liberalism.   A central tenet of this liberalism is that people will not “game” (ie., exploit) the system.  (Well, at least they won’t game the system unless they make at least, say, $500,000 a year and vote Republican.)  So, when you give them a take home exam – which is nothing but an open invitation to cheat – then certainly none of them will actually do this, unless of course their basic instincts have been corrupted in some way.  In this case, by the iPad that their doting parents gave them.

A central tenet of this blog, and one of the reasons why I have chosen this story to be my starting point, is that people, when given the means, motive and opportunity, will game the system.  Not all of them and not all of the time, but a significant and growing portion will. “Growing” because, when people look around and they see a lot of other people gaming with impunity, even the most ethical are tempted to ask themselves:  Why am I the only idiot?  And contrary to the political beliefs of both the right and left, it isn’t just the poor welfare cheats (as the Republicans would have us believe)  or the rich investment bankers (as the Democrats know to be the case) who do it.  It is everyone.

Every politician in the world should have tattooed to his or her forehead: People – rich or poor; educated or not; black, white or brown – respond to the incentives placed in front on them.  If politicians believed this and acted upon this belief, then an enormous amount of bad policy could be avoided.

Roger Barris, Switzerland

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Posted in: Economics

Comments

  1. Ben
    September 20, 2012

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    Roger, I just received your email about the blog. Simply brilliant! I couldnt help but smile and violently agree with your commentary on the Harvard article. Well done and look forward to following the stories.

  2. Greg
    September 20, 2012

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    Roger,

    Great comment on the Harvard cheating scandal. I look forward to reading your blog. Let’s probe deeper – you mention two things: (1) that people respond to incentives, and (2) people will “game” the system when they see others gaming the system. So, my question is how do we teach people to stand up and do what is ethically right even when they see others doing what is wrong and getting away with it? Or are the ethically “correct” people just idiots? Maybe they are simply nostalgic for old times and don’t realize that ethics are an ever changing target set by the current majority.

    – Greg

    • Roger
      September 20, 2012

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      You are fighting against millenia of evolution. I don’t think that we can consistently count on people “doing the right thing” spontaneously and contrary to their narrow interests. If we are going to order society, I would much rather count on creating the correct incentives than hoping that people will suddenly stop responding to them. Don’t forgot that Adam Smith called himself a “moral philosopher”. The “invisible hand” is much more than just an economic concept.

      • Greg
        September 24, 2012

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        I agree with the incentive argument. You are right. But, to be fair, we should throw all discussions of morals out the window and simply talk incentives.

        Having said that, your incentives have to work toward promoting some behavior. What behavior do you decide to promote? One that promotes the general welfare? But how do you define general welfare? What about minority rights? In a pure evolutionary argument, the minority shouldn’t have rights as they don’t in the animal kingdom.

        • Roger
          September 26, 2012

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          Greg, we should probably take this exchange off line because this is really not the purpose of this blog. But, to answer you briefly, I would say the following:

          This is not an ethical question. Ethics is the question of determining what is right and wrong. There is no question that what these students did is wrong. As a practical matter, we want school grades to mean something because they help us in making hiring and other resource allocations. If grades are to play this role, then they cannot be subject to this type of manipulation.

          Moreover, as I said in the write up, the students were in all likelihood fully aware that they were doing “wrong”. Basic ethical beliefs are innate in human beings and have evolved over millenia; this is why they are so similar across different philosophies and religions. Humans — like all organisms — are basically self-interested. However, they have evolved in an environment where there are mutual benefits to cooperation; these mutual benefits are especially strong in highly social animals like humans and therefore we have a very refined sense of “ethics”. Basic ethical rules — like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “don’t cheat in general (and especially on Harvard government exams)” — are hard coded into human beings. They are the basic rules necessary for humans to capture the mutual benefits of cooperation. Although, in the immortal words of Dr. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters, they are more guidelines than rules since they can be broken by self-interested humans trying to “game” the system, particularly if this is seen to have no negative consequences.

          So, if this is not an ethical question, then it is a practical one. Given that we don’t want grades to be manipulated, what is the best way to achieve this? Do we (a) lecture the Harvard undergraduates about their ethical responsibilities, as Harvard (and Greg, apparently), want to do or (b) lecture them (to invoke their innate sense of “ethics”) AND make it difficult for them to cheat with impunity? I know where I am putting my money.

  3. Gary Ford
    September 20, 2012

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    The latest I read is the course had a reputation as a gut course and the professor changed the requirements and made it a legitimate university level course (an academic play on “bait and switch”). Hence, many athletes were enrolled, as well as others with severe time demands looking for a way to pad their GPA’s while putting more effort into courses known to be difficult. This no way excuses their behavior but perhaps explains why more than 40% of the class may have been involved.

    A related series of questions might involve what incentives academic departments have for offering courses known to be easy? (Ans: Resources are often allocated within universities based on student credit hours taught so one can increase demand by lowering the price, e.g., effort required to get a satisfactory grade.) This is done throughout universities, (“rocks for jocks,” or “swimming pool management” anyone) and most often by departments that do not have large numbers of majors and yet want to protect the size of their faculties. University demand at the undergraduate level is a zero sum game; and so departments are always trying to attract students into their courses.

    The incentives of adminstrators are at work here also; not just those of the students.

    • Roger
      September 21, 2012

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      Gary, I am sure that there are lots of perverse incentives in the university world. Thanks for pointing some out. But the key point to the article for me was how the dean of students rushed to provide an excuse for some pretty inexcusable behavior. They just can’t help themselves.

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