The final exam instructions for Harvard’s “Introduction to Congress” class were clear: “Students may not discuss the exam with others.” But when the class professor observed similarities among (the written) exam results, he reported it to the school’s administrative board. Now, 125 of the 279 students enrolled in the course are being investigated for “plagiarizing answers and inappropriately collaborating” on the exam. Jay M. Harris, Dean of Undergraduate Education said the cheating incident was “unprecedented in anyone’s living memory.”

Perhaps the first instinct, on reading this Harvard Crimson story, is to label the students embroiled in the scandal as unscrupulous, aggressively ambitious, or maybe just lazy. Far removed from the situation, and our own college years (some more than others) it’s easy (and correct) to say that if the 125 students violated the parameters for the exam they are in the wrong.

Further sifting through the layers of the story, however, turns up the fact that the incident is not a straightforward bifurcation of black vs. white. Yes, students were allowed to work on the exam wherever they chose, yes, the exam was open book and open note, and yes, it was even “open internet.” But if a test is structured to ask questions that are not covered in the class or assigned reading (and is a healthy percentage of the total grade), or worse, if the questions themselves aren’t even clear, where does that leave students? It’s absolutely not an excuse to break the ground rules the professor has set, but it does leave a door open to temptation when the pressure is high and desperation kicks in. Kind of like when a hedge fund manager loses a lot of money on an investment, and unwilling to admit failure steals from Paul to give to Peter. Sound familiar?

How could this have been handled differently by all involved parties? Reading between the lines, the professor is probably a bad teacher (read the story for more details), the administration has to reconcile continuously offering a class that rates way below the average, and students have to understand that doing the right thing won’t always get them the top grade (and by extension, in the workplace, the top job or the top salary).

It is not an easy task for educational institutions to eradicate bad teaching or badly structured tests. But they can begin to arm students with opportunities that allow them to develop self-awareness, which in turn allows them to decide ahead of time where they must draw a line in the sand. Usually life has a way of getting us there, but college students haven’t necessarily had the time to experience the twists and curves that have forced the rest of us to be introspective and decide what’s important and what’s not.

Doesn’t it make sense to provide students opportunities during school that help them figure out what they stand for before they’re unleashed in a world that is far less safe, neat, and straightforward as a collegiate environment? Is it possible those opportunities might result in more of those students transitioning into professionals who think more closely about the repercussions of the choices they make?

Harvard, known throughout the world for its distinguished case studies, has a chance here to closely examine a case study come to life on its own turf and share the learnings. We at Hult Labs will be following the case as it continues to unfold.

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