Sunday, October 13, 2013

Honor and Dishonor

I am in favor of honor. I am not in favor of an honor code.

Talks have resumed at Harvard about adopting a so-called “honor code,” sometimes referred to as a "modified honor code." If I am not mistaken, the "modification" would be that students will not be required to turn each other in. I can see that the code would be more palatable without the snitching requirement, but I wonder how effective it would be with no moral onus for peer enforcement. 

But effectiveness is not my main concern. The deeper question is whether "honor" will mean anything at Harvard beyond its use as a modifier for things having to do with undergraduate cheating. I suspect we will just establish the honor code and some kind of court (which, it seems, may not be dubbed an “honor court”). Honor, quite likely, will be reduced to a vestigial form as a declaration you won't cheat on your tests and papers when no one is watching.

It may be that the mere act of writing words to that effect will have a positive effect on academic integrity, without any larger context of personal or institutional honor. Much as I would like to see less cheating, it doesn't feel quite right to me to reduce the moral issue to an exercise in applied psychology. If someone in William James Hall had demonstrated that the color pink makes people cheat less (in the way that football teams who dress in Iowa's pink visitor's locker room are supposedly less aggressive), would we make all students take their exams in pink clothing, or in pink rooms?

The problem with speaking about honor more generally in the Harvard community is that Harvard has been so reluctant to respond to bad behavior by anyone but students, or even to acknowledge that there is anything wrong with a variety of faculty behaviors that everyone knows are wrong. For example, a bare minimum of honor calls for understanding and owning up to one's malfeasances. Without calling it “honor,” the Ad Board has long considered holding students to that standard part of its educational role. There simply are no such expectations for faculty. 

Let's start with the infamous Gov 1310 "Cheating Scandal" itself, which Harvard publicly labeled  “unprecedented in anyone’s living memory.” This case has entered the hall of Harvard horrors alongside the bust of University Hall in 1969--two tragic events in which the balance of responsibilities, between students and the institution, is highly debatable, and student bitterness about Harvard’s actions has evolved into a lifetime of alumni resentment and mistrust. Already it is common knowledge, even among the Harvard faculty, that the cheating scandal began when the professor made a joke out of his course. This fall, one science professor, when confronted with an unexpectedly overflowing lecture hall on the first day of classes, cautioned the class, “This is no Gov 1310, you know.” That is, I am not going to announce that you don't have to go to class and won't have to work hard to get an A, the way the Gov 1310 professor did.

According to multiple accounts, Gov 1310 was a miserably constructed course with a miserably constructed exam. Since the professor said that no one had to go to class, it was common practice for students to take notes for each other. The exam was "completely open book, open note, open Internet, etc." Harvard, rather than proclaiming to the world that it had on its hands the biggest cheating scandal it had ever seen, should have acknowledged that it had on its hands an awful case of faculty negligence. It should have told the professor that he had made such a mess of his course that there was no way the College disciplinary process could treat all students fairly, so it would not deal with any cases at all---exactly as Dartmouth College did in the year 2000 when a large number of students were accused of cheating in one Computer Science course. Instead Harvard chose to scar dozens of students, and put through a year of hell many who were ultimately allowed to continue. Harvard then let the professor quietly slip away.

I don't actually blame the professor, since I don't know what he thought he was doing. Instead, I hold the department responsible. Departmental cultures vary, and the Gov 1310 professor may have been allocating his efforts exactly as his department signaled he should do. I would not have thought that possible, had I not witnessed as dean the way certain large social science departments work. Rather than talking to the department chairs and directors of undergraduate studies about student complaints, I had a meeting with the department administrators. One of them told me, "the chairman explained my job to me in very simple terms. My job is to keep the students away from the faculty." I realized then that unthinkable things in one department may be standard operating procedure in another. Junior faculty quickly pick up how business is done on their hallway, and the culture is transmitted forward in time.

I don't think what happened in the Government department could happen in Computer Science. If an Assistant Professor were teaching such a course, someone other than the instructor would notice that cohorts of students were being lured into the class for the wrong reasons. Some student in the class would tell one of the faculty what was going on in the classroom, and one of the senior faculty would wander down the hall and wring the instructor's neck. The CS faculty eat lunch together every week and we talk about how our classes are going and how the students showing up in our classes are changing (we had a conversation exactly like that just a few days ago). None of us would want to acknowledge to our peers that our course was a joke.

I have to think that the social bonds that hold the computer scientists to generally good behavior don't exist in the Government Department, and that the expectations on junior faculty of what counts as success have somehow been set wrong. That somehow the norms and incentives for honorable treatment of teaching responsibilities don't exist in any operational sense.

Perhaps I am wrong and something else is going on. But what was going on in Gov 1310 could not have been a secret, since the course had been taught the same way for several years. Even if no Gov 1310 student talked about the course to any Government Department professor, student evaluations are available to department chairs, presumably so they can have some sense of how students think courses in their departments are being conducted.

What was the failure that allowed this course to happen? And why is Harvard’s posture not, as it was with the allegations of student cheating in the course, to say, “It’s something that I think was obviously not going to stay secret, clearly, and nor do we want it to. I think it’s important for us to take an event like this and teach it, to treat it as a teaching opportunity.” Why has the Harvard faculty not taken the opportunity to learn something about itself from Gov 1310, rather than just to make anti-cheating policies clearer?

The failure of Harvard to do anything about a scandalously mismanaged course, and even now to discuss the questions of incentive and reward that drive faculty conduct, seem to me much bigger problems of dishonorable behavior than the behavior of the Gov 1310 students. And yet our insistence that we have a student problem on our hands rather than a faculty problem is leading the College to abandon its century-and-a-quarter-old system of deaning out of the Houses.

For make no mistake about it: If academic dishonesty cases are to be heard by a separate student-faculty body, it will be only a matter of time before the Allston Burr Resident Deans in the Houses lose their faculty status. They are an expensive luxury: the twelve of them are associate-professor level faculty FTEs, half for teaching (but not charged to departmental budgets) and half for administration. If the Administrative Board deals only with issues of academic progress and nonacademic misbehavior, it will eventually be impossible to justify hiring trained scholars, rather than student-service professionals, to be deans in the Houses.

In fact, the downgrading of the Resident Deans has probably begun already. The decision to search their email without telling them would have been easier if they were thought of as petty bureaucrats who must be watched, rather than as faculty colleagues with administrative responsibilities. We don't really know how well this search was thought through---for example, whether it would have been thought OK to search the accounts of department chairs if one of them had in a similar way disclosed some innocuous advising information. I am glad the Barron Committee is thinking all that through, though I remain disappointed that no Harvard official has been honorable enough to acknowledge that the search was a mistake.

Though I spent eight years struggling on the Ad Board with issues of student conduct, I never used to comment on faculty conduct, until I learned about the case of economics professor Andrei Shleifer, who conspired to defraud the government in a case involving tens of millions of dollars of federal funds with which Harvard had been tasked to help set up a capitalist economy in the new Russian state. As I said back in 2006 in an important article about that scandal in Institutional Investor, “The relativism with which Harvard has dealt with the Shleifer case undermines Harvard’s moral authority over its students.” That remains true to this day. One of the enduring, appalling mysteries of Harvard is how Shleifer survived at Harvard (and indeed prospered) in spite of the finding against him in federal court. It is the sort of thing that makes it hard to credit our rules and procedures (there is a Committee on Professional Conduct, after all) as meaning much of anything, and to suspect that power is a much more important motivation than honor in the way Harvard deals with faculty malfeasances.

Where were the Harvard officials who wanted to be sure that, as with the students involved in the Gov 1310 case, the world knew that one of its professors was involved in what must have been one of the largest cases of fraud in Harvard history?

Let's not even talk about Larry Summers, whose double-dipping was in flagrant violation of Harvard policies even before he became Obama's chief economic advisor. Where are the Harvard officials making sure the world knows that its faculty are involved in (I hope!) unprecedented abuses of its outside activities policies? For that matter, where are the Harvard officials telling the world that it is dishonorable at Harvard for a professor to call students “assholes” because they came to his office wearing neckties?

We are “One Harvard” now. Why are we talking only about student “honor”?


A word to my faithful followers: Forgive me for the low blogging rate, I have been busy!

I am back as Director of Undergraduate Studies in Computer Science, and business is booming. We have very large numbers of students, both in our courses and as concentrators [majors]. Several faculty are on leave, so I wound up with 43 undergraduate advisees this fall. My Theory of Computation class has an unprecedented 140 students, and I am also teaching my freshman seminar on Amateur Athletics. I am helping with the planning for the move of the Engineering School to Allston. Last week I spoke at the conference on the Educated Citizen in Crisis at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. Thursday I will be speaking to a sizable group of SEAS alumni in the Bay Area--I've  looked at the RSVP list and it will be wonderful to see so many old friends and former students. And the night before I fly out, I will be kicking off the President's Challenge at the i-Lab. That will be a fun event--I have some surprises for the audience in my remarks, maybe even expanding on the Bill Gates story Walter Isaacson told in his campaign-launch Gazette piece. It's a ticketed event, so sign up if you want to come!

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