Aug. 31, 2012 -- Administrators at Harvard College have accused 125 students of cheating on a final exam last spring, an allegation that Harvard graduate and author Eric Kester said reflects a "culture of cheating" at the school.
Officials at the prestigious university in Cambridge, Mass., said Thursday that they had found at least 125 students who they believe collaborated on a take-home final exam during the spring semester this year.
"We take academic integrity very seriously because it goes to the heart of our educational mission," Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said in a statement. "Academic dishonesty cannot and will not be tolerated at Harvard."
As of now, the school noted, the cheating is simply an allegation that will continue to be investigated. An academic board pored over 250 final exams from the Introduction to Congress class taught by Professor Matthew B. Platt, according to the Harvard Crimson.
Platt noticed similarities among 10 to 20 of the exams that were turned in, and alerted the Administrative Board, which then conducted an investigation, according to the report. The board then found similarities among 125 exams.
The student newspaper described how prior to the deadline to turn in the exam, panicked students packed into the office of a teaching assistant, asking for help explaining the essay questions on the test. Platt reportedly canceled his own office hours before the due date, the Crimson noted.
The school did not release the names of the accused students, although a student told ABC News that some of the individuals who took the class might have graduated in May.
Kester, a 2008 Harvard graduate who wrote a memoir, "That Book About Harvard," about his own struggles with academic honesty and the high expectations of Harvard, said the cheating scandal didn't surprise him.
"When I was a student there, I definitely noticed there was a culture of cheating there," Kester told ABC News today. "There's a lot of pressure internally and externally to succeed at Harvard and when kids who are not used to failing feel these things, it can really bend their ethics in ways I didn't expect to see."
Kester said he struggled through a calculus class during his time at Harvard, and at one point was approached by a group of students who were planning to cheat. He wrestled with his own morals about whether to join them before deciding against it, he said.
"It comes down to the responsibility of the students, they're adults, they know cheating is wrong, that's the bottom line," he said. "At the same time I'm slightly sympathetic to the students, because in our society and especially at Harvard, there are high expectations to become the next Mark Zuckerberg."
Kester noted that many of the students who cheat at Harvard are smart enough to pass the classes on their own.
"Most people who cheat at Harvard don't really need to, it's just sort of a way of making themselves feel safer of not failing," he said.
Harvard's reputation as a place that graduates politicians, CEOs and entrepreneurs only adds to the pressure that students feel while studying at the school, Kester said. Many of the students have likely felt pressure their entire lives to gain admittance to the school, and cannot risk failing out of Harvard once they're accepted.
"The fact that this story alone has become national story is evidence that Harvard is this lightning rod. Kids now are very aware, they've seen 'The Social Network,'" Kester said, referring to the movie about Zuckerberg's life.
"Most of these kids have spent at least high school and maybe since they were 5 or 6 years old getting into this school, doing SAT tutoring since 10 years old and going to organic chemistry summer camp. When you take that into account, you get a clearer sense of why you might be afraid," he said.
Kester and Harvard administrators agree that most students there do not cheat, but that academic integrity could be stressed more on campus.
"We must also not forget that the vast majority of our students complete all their assignments honestly, diligently, and in accordance with our regulations and practices," Smith, the dean, said. "Allegations of inappropriate collaboration or plagiarism in a single class should not be allowed to diminish the good work or reputation of our outstanding student body."
The school said it will focus on spreading awareness of academic integrity this school year.