Monday, September 17, 2012

A Deregulatory Failure

Almost my first reaction when I heard about the so-called "cheating scandal" at Harvard was that with that many cases, there must have been something wrong with the way the course was run. With all the difficulties in adjudicating 125 disciplinary cases, each implicating the reputation and career of an actual human being, I hope Harvard will be able to avoid being influenced by its worries about its own reputation. That would make it even less likely to look in the mirror and ask what it was about its course administration culture that set this debacle in motion. 

The more I know, the more I think this case is a deregulatory failure. Professors didn't like the heavy apparatus of secure, centrally administered final exams, and when the centrally hired proctors were eliminated along with hot breakfasts as a cost-saving measure a few years ago, they liked it even less that they had to do exam proctoring themselves. Vacation beckoned at the end of each term, and would come sooner if evaluations were done before Exam Period began. Going with the flow of faculty sentiment, the administration flipped the default so some non-exam form of evaluation during Reading Period became the norm rather than the exception. The faculty, left to their own devices to make up evaluation protocols, came up with a variety of methods, some better than others. I doubt much time was spent in department meetings talking about this; no guidance was given to the full faculty, except that we should be clear about our expectations. The prose in the student handbook regarding collaboration was revised along similarly permissive lines. The newly empowered, lightly regulated faculty experimented with some good and some unwise evaluation practices, without supporting norms and cultural memories.

Since the scandal broke, students are reacting in confused and self-protective ways. A student told me over the weekend that her peers are avoiding classes with take-home exams out of fear that innocent coincidences will get them swept up in some future compare-all-the-papers investigation. Hard to imagine that is really going to affect enrollments significantly, but the fact that a student thinks so is already troubling.

In the Huffington Post today I have a piece called Harvard, Know Thyself, which takes up several of the points I have blogged about recently, with somewhat greater specificity.

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