CAMBRIDGE — More than half of the roughly 125 Harvard University students investigated by the college’s disciplinary board for cheating on a take-home exam last spring were forced to temporarily withdraw, school officials announced Friday.
The disclosure, communicated in an e-mail to the Harvard community from Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, was the most extensive accounting of what is being called the Ivy League’s largest cheating scandal in recent times.
Smith said the inquiry, which concluded in December, resulted in about half of the students implicated in the high-profile case being asked to leave the college for “a period of time.” Affected students have said that it amounted to two academic semesters for most. The rest of the students were evenly split between those who received disciplinary probation or had their cases dismissed, he said.
“We, as a faculty, must redouble our efforts to communicate clearly and unambiguously to our undergraduates about academic integrity,” Smith wrote. “While the fall cases are complete, our work on academic integrity is far from done.”
The official announcement came as no surprise to many undergraduates, who saw dozens of classmates, teammates, and friends quickly disappear from campus without explanation throughout the fall semester. But the statement provided new perspective on the details of the investigation, a process that even Smith conceded had experienced delays because of its massive scale.
Though Harvard officials declined to comment further on the details of the case, Smith’s letter outlined a series of possible reforms that may be put in place to help students and faculty avoid similar situations in the future.
The students were accused of collaborating on the last of four take-home exams in the spring 2012 lecture Government 1310: Introduction to Congress. The students were given a week to complete the exams. Suspicions were first made public last August, when Harvard announced it was dealing with a cheating scandal of unknown scope.
Smith acknowledged the resolution of the cases took “much longer” than many had expected.
He also addressed a major complaint among students: The disparity in tuition refunds for those who were suspended.
At Harvard, tuition refunds are pro-rated, based on when a student withdraws. As the Administrative Board delved into details of the case, the timeline for student hearings grew from weeks to months.
Those whose cases were heard in September were able to recoup thousands of dollars more than peers whose cases were decided in December.
Harvard administrators have decided to fix that disparity, and will now provide tuition refunds based on Sept. 30 as the withdrawal date for all.
Still, that was small consolation for some implicated in the case who maintain that the Administrative Board used unfair practices to determine students’ guilt or innocence. Many have taken issue with allegations that students copied one another’s tests; they say similarities in exams arose because they shared notes with classmates, a practice expressly encouraged by the professor.
“The tuition issue — it’s an important one, but of all the issues we have with the Ad Board, it’s way down on the list,” said a father whose son withdrew after he was found guilty.
He called Smith’s letter insulting.
“Their own faculty has culpability, which they have failed to acknowledge,” said the parent, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of harming his son’s chances of being readmitted. “They should be exonerating these kids and looking hard at themselves and realizing they are the cause of this situation.”
Smith’s e-mail outlined upcoming plans by the school’s Committee on Academic Integrity to help students and faculty find ways to prevent academic dishonesty or inappropriate collaboration. These measures may include instituting an honor code or incorporating lessons on scholarly values into courses and residential houses.
One student who was exonerated said the recommendations rang hollow — the majority of similarities in the take-home exams occurred, he said, because of unclear directions by the instructor. Focusing on reforming student attitudes, he said, is wrong-headed.
“That’s not at the root of what happened in this particular instance,” he said.
On campus Friday, opinions among students were mixed.
Michael Constant, 19, said he thinks the college wanted to make a statement. Not punishing students, he said, would have been the same as condoning the behavior.
“I think it’s fair,” said Constant, who is studying neurobiology, said of the board’s decision. “They made the choice to cheat.”
But Georgina Parfitt, 22, said the punishment was too harsh, and that many students in the class could have been confused about the policy.
“Sending someone away for a semester or a year, it’s awful,” said Parfitt, an English major. “It changes someone’s life.”
Harold Eyster, 19, said students who cheat should be punished, but he was disappointed by the college’s response. Some professors have begun forbidding collaboration among students, he said, a move that Eyster feels could hinder learning at Harvard.
“Collaboration is so important in academic learning,” he said.