Courses as Commodities: The Harvard Cheating Scandal

Posted on Feb 3, 2013

In a final exam last May, nearly half of the 279 students in a Harvard government class were suspected of cheating. Until December, it was not clear exactly how the University would respond. On Friday, February 1, Dean Michael D. Smith informed the Harvard community that some students would be placed on disciplinary probation while others would be forced to leave Harvard.

In an article in the New York Times, published February 1, 2013, Richard Perez-Peña reported:

Harvard 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.

In what sense might we consider the Professor and his assistants partially responsible? Structural issues of the way teaching fellows discussed answers and how notes and material were distributed are all being questioned; however, I believe a far more fundamental issue is being displayed here. If students see no true purpose in their courses and cannot relate the material in them to their own lives, I believe we will continue to see growth in this sort of behavior. Students have come to see their courses merely as commodities (they “shop” for classes and report to the “Chief Information Officer”) and have been given no sense that their learning can engage them in an inquiry into what is meaningful in their lives.

Certainly, the students who cheated are responsible for their own actions–that much is clear. However, what sort of environment was created for them to consider and inquire in to the meaning of their courses?

Sadly, very little. To a large extent we are failing our students in providing them the tools and environments to inquire and sustain the development of what means most deeply to them so that they can act in accordance with that meaning. This is exactly what former Dean Harry Lewis lamented in Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future?:

…[U]niversities have forgotten their larger educational role for college students. They succeed, better than ever, as creators and repositories of knowledge. But they have forgotten that the fundamental job of undergraduate education is to …help [students] grow up, to learn who they are, to search for a larger purpose for their lives, and to leave college better human beings. (p. xii)

Of course, this is not a “Harvard” problem; rather, this is emblematic of a crisis throughout post-secondary education. Throughout post-secondary education, many have lost sight of our fundamental mission to create environments for students to discover what is most meaningful to them and to provide the information and tools for them to live out their vision. I applaud the willingness to examine this problem at one of the elite institutions and hope that others will follow by inquiring into what sorts of examples that we are setting. We must begin, again, to model for our students the importance of creating and sustaining a clear vision that provides the guidance for action. Compromising vision for expedient outcomes, like raising money, winning championships or getting students jobs at any cost, sets the stage for the kind of behavior we saw in the Harvard government class–and, frankly, that we see throughout our colleges and universities.

If “higher” education is doing nothing more than signaling to the labor market, then students have powerful incentives to do as little as possible while trying to secure the highest grade. Learning or considering the meaning of courses that will be nothing more than a letter on a transcript is hardly rationale. As educators, we must provide the means for students to see more from their education.

This basic problem of meaning is made even more problematic by the exploitation of elite athletes by universities and colleges (a number of those implicated in the scandal at Harvard were athletes). According to a Harvard Crimson article from April 14, 2011, Harvard spends about $20 million on its teams annually. That’s at Harvard; imagine what the budget for football is at a school like the University of Alabama, Michigan or Ohio State–all with stadiums that hold over 100,000 seats? Athletics and athletic scholarships can be wonderful ways to provide access and support a well-rounded education; however, I think that there can be little doubt that elite programs are committed to educational missions. By making these choices we are demonstrating to our students that money and winning is more important than education, learning and meaning.

Given the lack of vision of our courses, the manner in which we are using college athletes and the increased corporatization of higher education, is it any wonder that students aren’t taking their courses seriously? Corporations are fine ways to organize markets and create profit opportunities; however, they are not the best model for students to “search for a larger purpose for their lives, and to leave college better human beings.”

What should be the response?

We should stop and reflect: stop and reflect about our mission to provide environments for students to reflect deeply about what is most deeply important to them. We must reclaim our place as first-rate institutions of learning, where students inquire and develop their own sense of life mission so that they can act in accordance with that meaning.

In order to do this, students need to be provided with the tools to integrate this inquiry into their studies, both inside and outside of their classrooms.

In our teaching and in the provision of student services, we must foster and develop this inquiry. Certainly, there are many that are engaged in this endeavor, and there are many ways in which this is being addressed.

One of the ways that I have found powerful is the development of contemplative/introspective practices: practices that support students to find themselves in the center of their own education, provide the means for students to find their own sense of purpose, and challenge them to live out their learning so that courses and student activities become expressions of meaning rather than narrow, instrumental means.

At the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, we are actively engaged in creating these environments and inquiries. With over 500 members in our Association, conferences, retreats, and workshops, we are supporting the means for students to search within to find and sustain the inquiry into what means most deeply to them so that they can integrate that meaning into their studies.

In this way, cheating makes no sense–it has no place in fulfilling meaning and purpose in their lives. It becomes clearly an expedient end to an extremely narrow outcome: a grade. Let’s support an education that is meaningful and challenging.


Daniel Barbezat is Professor of Economics at Amherst College. He has been a visiting professor at Northwestern University and Yale University and has taught in the summer program at Harvard University. In 2004, he won the J. T. Hughes Prize for Excellence in Teaching Economic History from the Economic History Association.

Over the past decade, he has become interested in how self-awareness and introspection can be used in post-secondary education, economic decision-making and creating and sustaining well-being. With the support of a Contemplative Practice Fellowship in 2008, he has developed courses that integrate contemplative exercises designed to enable students to gain deeper understanding and insight. His approach to these economic classes has been featured in the Boston Globe, the U.S. News & World Report, as well as on the NPR program “Here & Now.”

Since 2009, he has worked with the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society as a Board Member, Treasurer and Associate Director of the Academic Program. In 2012, he became the Executive Director of the Center. He is actively working to expand and deepen programs, making the Center’s work more accessible and transformative for all.

Along with his experimental research on choice and awareness, he is currently editing a group of papers on examples of contemplative pedagogy across the disciplines with Arthur Zajonc to be published by Routledge, co-writing a book with Mirabai Bush on contemplative pedagogy to be published by Jossey-Bass, and writing (and thinking, thinking, thinking about…) a book entitled Wanting.


  1. Please do not just highlight the athletic angle of this story. Statistically, there were likely a significant number of development admits under investigation also but due to the public nature of athletic endeavors (team rosters etc), we just hear about the athletic angle. This goes much deeper than just athletics and speaks to a culture where parents and students place undue emphasis on slots at such institutions.
    The Bloomberg and Globe articles were more detailed than the NY Times article:

  2. Even in the sciences–that is, subjects that are more “objective,” you still lose a lot of educational efficacy with large sized classes. As an engineering student, my intellectual development was nearly stagnant as an undergrad, and only after graduation did I realize that who I was and where I was headed were still open questions.

    I agree completely that colleges simply aren’t doing their jobs. The important, painful task of deciding ones’ future is left to the student to figure out. (from my experience at a large public research institution) colleges see students as “products” to be picked up by corporations to fill job roles rather than as humans that must take part in making the world a better place.

    In my opinion, the educational content is secondary to personal development. Personal development includes: Knowing who I am, what I want the world to be like, how I can contribute to that future, and the critical skills of how to attain those goals (communication, compassion, understanding of others, leadership…)

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