An Inside Look at Harvard's Cheating Scandal

09/07/2012 09:09 pm ET | Updated Nov 07, 2012

I am a recent Harvard grad who has just published a memoir that discusses my experience at the college, including my observations on a cheating culture that surprised me. I never cheated myself, but I certainly saw a lot of the seedier side of the famed university: widespread copying of take-home assignments, exchanges of notes in bathroom stalls during tests, and research papers written and sold to desperate students for upwards of $800. In my mind it was not a question of if Harvard would face a cheating scandal, it was a matter of when.

Nearly half the 279 students in Government 1310 have been accused of cheating on last spring's take-home final exam, and these students should be shouldering nearly all of the blame. There are numerous external factors that kindled this cheating scandal, but the bottom line is that students know right from wrong. Yes, we're young, but we're also adults. You know when that feeling in your gut is linked to something deeper than what you had at the dining hall.

The university is not exempt from blame either. "Cheating = bad" is hardwired into a student's mind, but "failing = bad" is just as ingrained (especially for the Type-A students that dominate a place like Harvard). When poor performance on a test becomes a frighteningly realistic possibility, these two axioms of student academic performance clash. To promote a culture of integrity, schools must constantly reinforce the more noble of these two ideals.

During my time as a student at Harvard, I don't recall the school emphasizing integrity in a consistent, explicit manner. It's possible I simply wasn't looking in the right place, but either way, the issue wasn't one that was often discussed. Sure, there was an anti-cheating statement in their brick of a student handbook; but I, like most students, primarily used this hunk of text to prop open windows.

I knew of several students who cheated. Some got busted; most didn't. For those who were busted, the punishments varied widely. One student caught plagiarizing was expelled for a year and spent his hiatus working the nightshift as a security guard at a morgue. Another caught cheating on an economics midterm was sitting next to me in lecture the next day.

Perhaps the school's somewhat inconspicuous stance on academic integrity is the result of the trust they have in students with impeccable academic records, but it's critical to remember that any college aged student is just that -- college aged, and, therefore, susceptible to errors in judgment. In the wake of this scandal, it's encouraging to read that Harvard administration plans to be more proactive in establishing an academic culture where integrity is on the forefront of conversation.

But better communication alone is not going to change things very much. That's because the primary root of this cheating problem doesn't belong to the students, the faculty, or the Harvard administrators alone. Rather, it is rooted in the almost absurd level of high esteem that the modern world has attached to elite institutions of higher learning like Harvard, and the immense power we imagine flows from being successful in such an environment. Because of the larger society's almost unquestioned veneration of Harvard as a certifier of quality of mind and an enabler of career success, a hypercompetitive atmosphere has emerged within its ivy-covered walls in which a youth culture of career advancement has supplanted the scholarly pursuit of truth and knowledge.

When a few students cheat on a test, it's easy to dismiss the problem as one of individual folly. But when 125 -- one hundred and twenty five -- students coordinate to commit academia's cardinal sin, well, that speaks to a vastly larger issue, an issue of a flawed culture.

The pressures to succeed at Harvard are incredible. Imagine having spent thirteen years of whittling yourself into a perfect college candidate whose achievements can fit beautifully onto a four page application. Imagine your summers at organic chemistry camp. Imagine the SAT books piling up on your desk. Imagine now scoring a perfect score on the SATs, and knowing that even that might not be enough. Imagine frowning college counselors talking about SATs, GPAs, and APs so often that you can never again eat alphabet soup.

Now envision getting accepted into Harvard, a supposed golden ticket to success. Now imagine student debt equivalent to a small home mortgage. Imagine failing a test because you got 80% of the answers correct but all the other geniuses did much better. Imagine walking to class and having tourists snapping pictures of you because you are a genuine Harvard student. Imagine Marc Zuckerberg. Bill Gates. Eight American presidents. That could be you some day, your parents say. You're so close. Just get that Harvard degree.

We are a society obsessed with success. We don't like to admit it, but success often trumps character today. Yes, Zuckerberg may be arrogant and his IPO flopped. But he was Man of the Year, and we want to be him, or something like him. Our preoccupation with stature has permeated youth mores everywhere. Harvard has become more than just a school. It's become a symbol of American success. In fact, many believe it's a guarantee of success. And if you're lucky enough to get there, you better make it count. At all costs.

Eric Kester graduated from Harvard in 2008 and is the author of the new memoir "That Book About Harvard"