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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


Lessons From the Largest Cheating Scandal in Harvard’s History

Last month, the New York Times reported that Harvard University has “forced dozens of students to leave in its largest cheating scandal in memory, the university made clear in summing up the affair on Friday, but it would not address assertions that the blame rested partly with a professor and his teaching assistants.”

Harvard didn’t say how many students were disciplined for cheating on a take-home final exam given last May in a government class, but the university’s statements indicated that the number forced out was around 70. “The class had 279 students, and Harvard administrators reported that “nearly half” were suspected of cheating and would have their cases reviewed by the Administrative Board. “On Friday, a Harvard dean, Michael D. Smith, wrote in a letter to faculty members and students that, of those cases, ‘somewhat more than half’ had resulted in a student’s being required to withdraw,” according to the NYT.


photo credit: Mr_Stein via photopin cc

Wow. Is this some kind of pattern or an isolated event? 

Studies of student behavior and attitudes show that a majority of students violate standards of academic integrity to some degree, and that high achievers are just as likely to do it as others. Moreover, there is evidence that the problem has worsened over the last few decades. Nationwide, educators report an increase in student cheating on tests, plagiarism on papers and copying answers from other students. When challenged about these things, students often shrug their shoulders, saying they do what they have to do to get by.  This leads me to suggest three lessons we are learning from students today:

1. Pragmatism is replacing principles.

When I was growing up, even the worst offender admitted that cheating was wrong. They just did it anyway. Today, students are explaining that it isn’t really cheating, when they have to do it to reach their goal. Where do they get this idea? Just look at the adults. Parents push them to make the grade, make the team, make the class to get into college. So, they become pragmatic. Whatever it takes to get by. Even Lance Armstrong, in his interview with Oprah Winfrey said he wasn’t convinced that what he did was wrong, when he took Performance Enhancing Drugs. Everyone’s doing it. To possess morals is now quite rare in students at many higher ed institutions.

2. Individualism is replacing sacrifice.

It used to be, people saw themselves as a part of something much larger. They played a unique part, but it was not about them. It was about a team or a cause. This drove people to make sacrifices for their country, their team or their cause. Dr. Jeanne Twenge reports that narcissism is on the rise, 30% higher than when I was a kid. And when students experience narcissism, they don’t see themselves as part of something more important. They, themselves, are the focus. Listen to the music on the radio today and you’ll see a huge bump in self-absorption in the lyrics. It’s about me. I am awesome. I am special. I am entitled. Why should I make a sacrifice or follow someone else’s morals? Arrogance is, in fact, replacing humility.

3. The pursuit of success is replacing the development of values.

In many cheating cases, students admit that adults (i.e. parents) have pushed them to become all they can be, but never gave them boundaries in that pursuit. In other words, do whatever you have to do to achieve, get ahead and beat out the competition. Whenever a vision is developed before values are clarified, the person often will compromise their values right and left, in the name of accomplishing the vision. Success, even if you cheat to get it, is a priority over reputation or integrity.

Let me ask you: how do you ignite values and moral principles in your students? Leave a comment.



  1. charlene fonseca on March 13, 2013 at 7:17 am

    I love connecting with students for this very purpose–igniting values and principles–but short of sharing one’s life with them, can’t say how it could be possible. Of course, in the scheme of a body of leaders working together in a student’s life, it becomes more possible again.

    • Tim Elmore on March 18, 2013 at 3:46 pm

      Great point. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Erin Brown on March 13, 2013 at 8:57 am

    There seems to be a social responsibility movement (positive and negative) among young people as well. How do you see this movement interacting with the narcissism that’s so prevalent?

    • Tim Elmore on March 18, 2013 at 3:45 pm

      There is tension between a genuine desire to help and the inability to stick with long-term commitments. We have to challenge students not only to get involved in social causes but to commit to seeing the task through.

  3. Iliana on March 16, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    I am from Greece. When I was young (I was at the last grade of school) I was studying Ancient Greek with a young professor. He starts asking me questions and I do not remenber a single thing. He knew I was a good student so this is what he did: He stoped the lesson and he took me out of a classroom full of students and he talked me personally. Not about the lesson but about me,my future, me fears… And when I told him that we should probably go back, he said “I have the opportunity to teach Greek every day but I have the opportunity to affect a child’s life just once. I do it for me, not for you!” Then I realised that being a teacher is profound, is about making a change. I remember every single thing from this discussion even there have been more than 10years! So for me, we share principles when we talk from our hearts, when we don’t constantly look at our watch when we talk to them. I became a child psychologist and I follow his lead! Could I thank him more for his positive influence in my life?

  4. mike on March 18, 2013 at 8:34 am

    My main area of teaching is as a golf professional. I am very fortunate to have sound morals and ethics as the core of the game. Most of my teaching of young students revolves around the integrity and honesty involved in the game. As a life long golfer, the older I get, the more I feel obligated to teach the life lessons over the technique. I personally feel sports are a womderful way to teach morals and ethics.

    • Tim Elmore on March 18, 2013 at 3:43 pm

      Great point, Mike. Sports truly are great preparation for life and provide so many teachable moments.

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Lessons From the Largest Cheating Scandal in Harvard’s History