Harvard academic scandal haunts hoops

On Aug. 30, the New York Times reported word of a wide-ranging academic scandal at arguably the country’s most highly respected institution of higher learning: Harvard University. The number of students implicated (up to 125) was intriguing, and I suppose “cheating at Harvard” makes for a clicky headline, but college kids maybe not being totally honest about their methods for passing a class? Even at Harvard, this was not entirely shocking. I didn’t pay much mind.

That is no longer the case. Indeed, the scandal appears to touch the surging Harvard men’s basketball program, and could cost (or delay) both senior co-captains -- Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry -- their final season at the school. Late Monday night, SI.com’s Luke Winn reported that Casey “plans to withdraw from school and is likely to miss to the entire 2012–13 season” after being implicated in the scandal. Harvard’s fall registration deadline is Tuesday (today), and Casey “faced the decision of whether to withdraw in order to preserve his final year of eligibility.” Curry’s father told SI.com his son had not yet made a similar decision Tuesday morning.

Casey’s decision doesn’t necessarily mean the end of his career at Harvard. Indeed, by withdrawing from the school, he could avoid losing his final season of eligibility. If Casey is re-admitted to Harvard in 2013–14 after serving an academic suspension, he could be reinstated to the basketball team. That appears to be the plan.

It should be noted that this appears to be much more nuanced than a garden-variety academic scandal. For one, it involves nearly half of a 279-student Introduction to Congress class, and the entirety of students’ grades were based on take-home tests. A day after the original story broke, on Aug. 31, students explained the class to the NYT:

The class met three times a week, and each student in the class was assigned to one of 10 discussion sections, each of which held weekly sessions with graduate teaching fellows. The course grade was based entirely on four take-home tests, which students had several days to complete and which were graded by the teaching fellows.

Students complained that teaching fellows varied widely in how tough they were in grading, how helpful they were, and which terms and references to sources they expected to see in answers. As a result, they said, students routinely shared notes from Dr. Pratt’s lectures, notes from discussion sessions, and reading materials, which they believed was allowed. […] An accused sophomore said that in working on exams, “everybody went to the T.F.’s and begged for help. Some of the T.F.’s really laid it out for you, as explicit as you need, so of course the answers were the same.”

It is possible, given that information and the ongoing investigation surrounding the school, Casey may have been able to explain his implication in the scandal as the product of an unwieldy learning environment. (I’ve always wondered: Why give a take-home exam in the first place? Either test everyone in the classroom or make everyone respond to a big essay prompt. I’ve never understood this. Professors, man.) By the time Harvard gets through with the investigation, it’s possible many of the students -- some of whom probably were only sharing notes with their classmates -- won’t deserve an entire year suspension from the school.

But Casey couldn’t afford to wait it out, and that means a major loss for the 2012–13 Crimson. Casey, the team's top returning scorer and rebounder, was a big-time force on both ends of the floor in his junior season. On defense, he was second on the squad in both defensive rebounding rate and block percentage; on offense, he led the Crimson in usage and took the highest percentage of his team’s available shots when he was on the floor.

Casey alone is a major loss for a team with designs on a repeating its Ivy League title run. If Curry is also lost, Harvard will still one of the more talented teams in the Ivy. But it will no longer be the overwhelming favorite.

And all thanks to a take-home test. Wild.