Harvard scandal reveals ethical rot

Posted: September 12, 2012

By Howard Gardner

On Aug. 27, about 1,600 freshmen arrived at Harvard. Two days later, I had the pleasure of spending 90 minutes with 20 of them. They impressed me with their intellect, but also their empathy and willingness to listen to and learn from one another. They were excited to be at Harvard; I joked to colleagues that in a few years, they would be so critical, if not cynical, that they would have a hard time believing their earlier enthusiasm.

On Aug. 30, I and many others learned of the university's largest cheating scandal in living memory. According to news reports, close to half of the 250 undergraduates in the course "Introduction to Congress" are being investigated for allegedly cheating on a final examination. The fate of individual students is not yet known, but this will clearly be a stain on Harvard's reputation.

Many wonder how this could have happened at "MGU" (man's greatest university). They will ask whether many of the same enthusiastic students I met with last week might well, in a year or two, be part of a cheating scandal themselves. The answer, I fear, is yes.

I've been at Harvard for more than half a century - as a student, researcher, and, for almost three decades, professor. I know the university well, and in many ways, I love it. Yet almost 20 years ago, I became concerned about the effect of market-driven ways of thinking on our society, particularly the young.

Some of my colleagues and I undertook a study of "good work." As part of that study, we interviewed 100 of the "best and brightest" students in depth about life and work. The results of that study, reported in the book Making Good, surprised us.

Over and over, students told us they admired good work and wanted to be good workers. But they also told us they wanted - ardently - to be successful. They feared that their peers were cutting corners and that if they themselves behaved ethically, they would be bested. And so, they told us in effect, "Let us cut corners now and, one day, when we have achieved fame and fortune, we'll be good workers and set a good example" - a classic case of the ends justifying the means.

We were so concerned by these results that, for the past six years, we have conducted reflection sessions at elite colleges, including Harvard. Again, we have found the students to be articulate and thoughtful. Yet we have also found hollowness at the core.

Two examples: In discussing the firing of a dean who lied about her qualifications, no student supported the firing. Typical responses were "She's doing a good job; what's the problem?" and "Everyone lies on his resumé." And in a discussion of the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, students were asked what they thought of traders who manipulated energy prices. No student condemned them; responses varied from "Caveat emptor" to "It's state officials' job to monitor the situation."

One clue to the troubling state of affairs came from a Harvard classmate who asked me: "Howard, don't you realize that Harvard has always been primarily about one thing: success?" The students admitted to Harvard these days have watched their every step, lest they fail to get into an elite school. But once admitted, they begin to look for new goals, and being a successful scholar is usually not high on the list. What is admired is success on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, in Hollywood.

As for those students who do have a scholarly bent, all too often they see professors cut corners - in their class attendance, their attention to student work, and, most flagrantly, their use of others to do research. Most embarrassingly, when professors are caught - whether in financial misdealings or even plagiarizing others' work - there is frequently no clear punishment. If punishment does ensue, it's kept quiet, and no one learns the lessons that need to be learned.

Whatever happens to those guilty of cheating, many admirable people are likely to be tarred by their association with Harvard. That's the cost of being a flagship institution. Yet this scandal can have a positive outcome if leaders begin a searching examination of the messages being conveyed to our young people, and then do whatever it takes to make sure those messages are the kind that lead to lives genuinely worthy of admiration.

Howard Gardner is a professor of cognition and education at Harvard's Graduate School of Education and a coauthor of "Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet."

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