Harvard - it's in the name

A few weeks ago Gene Plotkin, a 27-year-old Wall Street trader and 2000 graduate of Harvard College was arrested by the FBI for allegedly running a global insider trader scheme based on tips from the printer proofs from Business Week magazine. And over the weekend, the Harvard Crimson reported that Kaavya Viswanathan, a Harvard sophomore whose new novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life netted her a $500,000 advance while she was still in high school, plagiarized several passages from previous teen angst books by Megan McCafferty, a former editor at Cosmopolitan and YM.
Duke University has received worse press coverage in recent weeks, but Harvard students and graduates aren't belting out the school's fight song in public, especially if these allegations turn out to be accurate. I don't believe there is anything particularly noxious about going to school in Cambridge, Mass. that encourages breaking the rules. Harvard is a college like any other. Students work hard or slack off, or alternate between a combination of the two. Students cheat, and they also get caught. Cheaters might be exposed at higher rates than other schools because Harvard professors use high-tech computer programs to catch plagiarized words and computer code. Most students cut corners to keep from falling behind. Those that cheat and succeed don't talk about it.
But more than having your roommate write your essay, or getting an early look at an exam, Harvard's main problem is the slow seep of entitlement that all students there absorb. Dining hall conversations are conducted through a warped prism that focuses all attention on this school and its importance in the world. Students learn that they are to be the best, first, and smartest in everything they do. At first most of this self-importance is imagined. But as the Harvard name and diploma works its magic, the bestowed authority becomes more real. It can also influence behavior. 'You are already the best,' the internal rationalizing goes. 'What you do to stay the best is not cheating, but your own cleverness.' Some people take this entitlement too far and blur the distinction between right and wrong or legal and illegal. It's easy to cheat when you consider yourself on a different level from everyone else.
But not all of this ego is cultivated inside Harvard Yard. Many people are quite willing to give Harvard extra attention, for both its triumphs and follies, which nourishes an already strong self-absorption. And as long as the rest of the world continues looking, Harvard students will continue to be seen--for both good and bad reasons.