Bizarro World Ethics At Harvard


We will pass with little notice or comment the weird exploits of Eldo Kim, the 20-year-old Harvard University sophomore accused of emailing a bomb threat that cleared out Harvard Yard this week during exams, apparently because be wasn’t ready for his. How completely devoid of ethics does one have to be to do something like this? And how dumb! He undermines the efforts of all his fellow students who are prepared for their exams, causes fear and panic on campus, causes disruption, inconvenience and expense to the university, and all because he either didn’t study sufficiently or wasn’t prepared to fake his way through an exam like most students, all while risking arrest, trial and conviction for a serious crime that will harm his future prospects far more than any poor exam performance might. Today we learned that Kim was a psychology major studying partisan taunting. He was worried about passing an exam in partisan taunting?

Adding to the strangeness, a controversy erupted this week when veteran Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield expressed his outrage that a recent study had revealed that the most common grade given to Harvard students is A, a practice, he says (and correctly so) that penalizes genuinely outstanding students and allows slackers to slide through Old Ivy without breaking a sweat. Jeff Neal, the hapless Harvard spokesman assigned the job of spinning this revelation, confirmed the accuracy of the Mansfield’s claim, and said, maybe without giggling:

“In recent years, the [Faculty of Arts and Sciences] have reemphasized and elevated the importance of teaching and learning in our mission to the benefit of the undergraduates at Harvard College. We believe that learning is the most important thing that happens in our classrooms and throughout our system of residential education. The faculty are focused on creating positive and lasting learning outcomes for our undergraduates.”

If I recall from my undergrad days, the technical term for such a statement is “bullshit.”

Meanwhile, Prof. Mansfield, who was teaching when I was an undergraduate so he is the approximate age of the Crypt Keeper, revealed his solution to Harvard’s unconscionable grade inflation: he gives students two grades, one that goes on their transcripts and one he believes they actually deserve. Ah. So the good professor capitulates to a university practice he finds repugnant, and lies to those who rely on student transcripts by presenting an official grade that he doesn’t think his students deserve. Their real performance is their little secret.

I sympathize with Mansfield’s dilemma: it is a classic Bizarro World ethics problem. When the culture is unethical, conventional ethics make no sense: if Mansfield gives real grades, rather than Harvard A’s, to his students, they will look like dimwits to graduate school and employers—you know, like the kind of idiots who study topics like “partisan taunting” and who think the way to succeed is to postpone exams they aren’t ready for with bomb threats. You know, the kind of student that a University like Harvard would never admit.  But since he’s been so vocal about his disgust with grade inflation, Prof. Mansfield’s phony A’s will be regarded as real A’s, even if his secret grade was a C.

Such are the ethical problem solving skills of Harvard’s professors. No wonder the students try bomb threats.

[Full disclosure: the author’s usual grade at this institution was a B+ or B, with others, lower and higher, mixed in. Nobody was impressed. ]


Facts: Boston Globe 1,2, Boston Herald

Graphic: Deviant Art (Marcelo Di Chiara)

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work or property was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

23 thoughts on “Bizarro World Ethics At Harvard

  1. This is what I tell my students at the beginning of the course:

    F – Fail. It means the lecturer has screwed up. To even get on this advanced and challenging postgrad course means you have the ability and dedication to pass it. Medical or other unavoidable problems outside anyone’s control should result in a NC – not completed – and another opportunity.

    P – Pass. Ideally, no-one should get this, but some won’t have the natural talent to do better, others will make a rational decision to concentrate their efforts more in other areas. It means the lecturer can set them loose on an unsuspecting world with a clear conscience that, with supervision for a year or two, they’ll be competent. 90% of those in industry are not. “Pass”means “well above industrial average” which it darned well should be, considering the amount of money paid by students and the academic reputation of the institution.

    CR – Credit – Can work with minimal supervision. Competent. Someone I’d hire, knowing I wouldn’t have to assign an experienced professional to mentor them and get them up to speed.

    D – Distinction – Knows as much as the lecturer, by and large. The lack of 25 years industrial experience is compensated for by superior academic and theoretical training.

    HD – High Distinction – as D, but has also taught the lecturer a thing or two, and shown creative insight. *Better* than the lecturer.

  2. Gtown Law had the reverse problem for some time. It graded on a fixed bell curve — so there were a lot of students that could get lower grades than deserved. More importantly, because other comparable law schools were on a Harvard-like system of giving higher grades than deserved, that put Gtown grads at a disadvantage out in the market. Last I checked, Gtown has adjusted its curve up, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near the “everybody gets an A” system .

    But you should be proud of your undergrad grades Jack — you actually stayed in school and received decent grades during the Vietnam era? No wonder people think you are conservative! You earned a degree at a time when you were supposed to be out making tie-dye shirts, smoking weed, writing love songs, and breaking into national guard facilities. I’m impressed actually. Or maybe you did those things too and are just really good at multi-tasking. Do you still own a VW bus?

  3. Umm, Jack, he wasn’t majoring in partisan taunting. He was *studying* it.

    More specifically, he was a research assistant helping conduct analyses of the phenomenon. While I can’t really comment on just what he *means* by it (it depends on, among other things, what they intend by the term, whether they’re using standard definitions, and just how they’re operationalizing things), it’s not a phony topic.

    In fact, there’s a specific definition available from *a* Harvard lab (not sure if it’s the right one) at .

    To wit: “Explicit, public, and negative attacks on another political party or its members”.

    I think you can agree that this is something worth taking a look at. Now if only they’d follow the KISS principle in their methodology… and perhaps choose better labels for their constructs…

      • “When the culture is unethical, conventional ethics make no sense: if Mansfield gives real grades, rather than Harvard A’s, to his students, they will look like dimwits to graduate school and employers—you know, like the kind of idiots who major in phony topics like “partisan taunting” and who think the way to succeed is to postpone exams they aren’t ready for with bomb threats.”

          • At the very least, you’re strongly implying that “partisan taunting” is a major at Harvard… and that’s being generous.

            You’re also calling “partisan taunting” a “phony topic.”

              • You’ve been found guilty of intolerant speech towards individuals who are inclined to study “partisan taunting”.

                Further discussion of that topic will only result in harsher sentencing.

                Your execution will be scheduled shortly.

              • Umm… no. For one thing, only some aspects of it were clearly facetious. For another, my problem is with the aspects which *weren’t*.

                As for your second statement… the topics labs study and the like are necessarily narrow: I, for instance, have spent time studying the blinding procedures used in various labs (before the project was destroyed, anyway). An acquaintance of mine has spent time studying how people remember the faces of their torturers and rapists. I know of people who have studied how the availability heuristic effects decision-making of gamblers.

                None of these are phony topics.

                Politicians’ open attacks on their rivals? Not a phony topic, either, for the same reason. I wouldn’t develop an undergraduate course on it (it’s far too narrow), but the guy’s claiming to have assisted in research on it. Good for him.

                Now only if we could actually *trust* the work he’s done, given his clearly demonstrated willingness to deceive for personal benefit. This sort of crap is utterly toxic to science.

                • “None of these are phony topics.”
                  And none of them are. Partisan taunting seems very much a phony topic. What, exactly, is there to research? That’s a sub-heading of “taunting” and I don’t even think that’s an appropriate topic for undergrad study. Not merely narrow, but really: what is there to research?

                  Your conclusion, however, is, if anything, an understatement. Research by demonstrably untrustworthy researchers is worse than worthless.

                  • You ask what’s there? Well, let’s go back to the one definition of partisan taunting that I actually have: “Explicit, public, and negative attacks on another political party or its members.”

                    I can think of a number of potential things to legitimately investigate off the top of my head.

                    Let’s see: The effects these attacks have on the public perception of both groups, the circumstances under which politicians engage in such attacks, the effects that such attacks have on the political success of the politician making them… among countless others.

                    You have a lab on campus studying any of those things? Said lab could use an undergrad lab assistant? Boom. You have an undergrad studying one of those topics.

                    And I have to disagree with you: What’s most toxic to science isn’t the demonstrably untrustworthy researchers. It’s the untrustworthy researchers who _aren’t_ demonstrably so.

                  • Partisan taunting may be a serious subject. In the UK we have highly divided and violently opposed identity blocs. Nationalists and loyalists in Northern Ireland for example. Violently partisan and unison singing, finger pointing, collectively taunting football (soccer) crowds for another. And the UK is mot the only place that goes in for such dangerous practices. The US is fairly blessed not to have much of it, as far as I know. A study of what precipitates crowd taunting into mob violence could be useful. Such research could even apply to twitter bullyfests too.

                  • And as for politics we could certainly use the research. Our House of Commons is frequently packed with it. (“Half the members on the opposite benches are thieves and liars” “Withdraw that remark!” “Very well, half the members on the opposite benches are not thieves and liars” Laughter in the House.) It’s pathetic. So research away, Harvard. Keep debate off the slippery slope of partisanship for as long as possible.

                    • Research is unnecessary to know that the conduct is unethical and should be stopped. Research *is* necessary to understanding what exactly is going on, why it happens, and what aspects of political systems encourage it. Understandings of any of these things can then (potentially) be used to help change things for the better.

  4. Actually I went in and looked at that link from Alex, and it’s pretty interesting. A little overly statistical, but the concepts underlying it are solid and fascinating. It ends up applying it to an analysis of the percentage of press releases by US senators which are essentially taunting, i.e. pretty much guaranteed to shut down debate.
    An interesting time and application for such a technique.
    Anyway, for present purposes, it’s high quality stuff.
    But you knew that, right? Really, what are the odds that total crap is going to get taught at Harvard? IMHO, not that hign.

  5. You’ve given me a flashback to my days in the biological sciences, when every data-head professor would present his “absolutely final” grade scale. Then they calibrated their tests to create a beautiful distribution curve (not assigning grades to the bell curve, just making the test hard enough to produce a decent one naturally). Then the students panic, because the curve is centered on 50%, AKA Failing. Then the prof realizes he can’t fail 60% of his class and adjusts up. And that, friends, is how my Biochemistry grade went from a 1.0 to a 2.5 on the 4.0 scale.

  6. I can only hope that Jeff Neal, the Harvard spokesman, isn’t also a Harvard alumnus:

    …. We believe that learning is the most important thing that happens in our classrooms….

    The most important “thing that happens?” Did Mr. Neal have such paucity of thought and poverty of expression that no other descriptive phrase came to mind? Not “result of the teaching” or “outcome of the education” or… well, anything?
    Back in high school English class, I was taught to replace every instance of “thing” with “shit” and every instance of “very” with “God damn,” because, with that language, I couldn’t turn in my work until I had found appropriate word choices.
    Although, for this particular quote, “shit” may be the most apt substitution: “…. the most important shit that happens in our classrooms….”

    • Reminds me of one of the worst Christmas song lyrics ever, in the Sinatra “standard” “Christmas Waltz”: “Santa’s on his way–he’s filled his sleigh—with THINGS—things for you and for me”…

      Of course. the champion hackery is “Little St. Nick” by the Beach Boys: “Christmas comes this time each year!”

  7. I think I prefer Chuck Berry’s “Run, run, Rudolph”. He didn’t go to any college as far as I can tell. All the better that he didn’t 😉

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