America’s first college, Harvard University, is almost universally regarded as our gold standard of higher learning.
So much so that in jest, students in other parts of the country sometimes call their colleges “the Harvard” of this place or that, knowing that no other school could match the old Ivy League institution in the Boston suburb of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Traditionally, only the crème de la crème of the nation’s high-school graduates are admitted, and a Harvard degree is said to be a sure ticket to a lucrative career.
But haughty Harvard is dealing with an embarrassing blemish on its record and reputation.
It’s a cheating scandal possibly implicating as many as 125 students in a government class. It’s the sort of incident that sometimes besets a less-prestigious institution - which is precisely what has Harvard, its critics, and its alumni astir.
Dozens of varsity athletes have been connected to the cheating episode, involving a take-home test last academic year, just when Harvard’s basketball team had become one of the nation’s 25 best, for the first time ever.
This has prompted hand-wringing in the academic community, which is fearful that Harvard is beginning to mirror the practice at some other schools of cutting corners for prized athletes and admitting some students just because they can throw a football or shoot a basketball.
Two star players who were co-captains of the Crimson basketball team have taken leave from school this season, according to Harvard officials. “Without integrity, there can be no genuine achievement, either at Harvard or anywhere else,” undergraduate dean Jay Harris said in a statement soon after the cheating was discovered.
Familiar rationales for the cheating have been sounded: Stressed students are more interested in scoring good grades than with learning. The easy access to information online makes plagiarism and cheating easier than ever. Universities no longer stress ethics. And professors who are immersed in their research often pay less attention to teaching.
These arguments might ease the embarrassment at some universities. But at 376-year-old Harvard University, they do not.