Several faculty members and students have raised questions about the effectiveness of the College’s honor code in response to the recent annual report of the Honor and Discipline Committee. Specifically, the report has sparked debate among the faculty as to whether or not there is a need for professors to adopt more comprehensive anti-cheating policies.
The report, which was distributed to student mailboxes last week, described nine honor code violations that were brought to the attention of the Honor and Discipline Committee during the 1997-1998 academic year.
“It’s a very thick tome, if I say so myself,” said Tamaan Osbourne-Roberts ‘99, the student chair of the committee. “The generalized feeling is that cheating last year took a major rise, too much of a rise.”
Dean of the College Peter Murphy addressed the issue of cheating at Williams at the most recent faculty meeting.
“I simply presented the reality of cheating at Williams in a fairly aggressive way,” said Murphy. “I reminded the faculty that some small percentage of our students cheat, that they mean to cheat, that they try to cheat.”
“I thought it was best if we recognize this and try to make it as hard as possible for them to get away with it,” he added.
At the meeting, Murphy put forth the suggestion that professors create seating charts whenever they gives tests as a precaution against students who cheat off classmates during exams.
However, some faculty members said they believe such an action would be insulting to students and could potentially undermine the spirit of the honor code.
“I was taken aback by the fact that people were urging us to have seating assignments,” said Professor of Mathematics Olga Beaver. “I take the honor code very seriously as a pact between me and [the students]. Once you have seating assignments you are not honoring the honor code in the way we have made a pact to.”
Professor of Biology Wendy Raymond concurred.
“I was surprised to hear that from Peter Murphy,” she said. “It isn’t what I think of from a college with an honor code.”
“The faculty are only partners in the honor code with the students,” she added. “We don’t enforce the honor code; the honor code enforces the honor code.”
Several students echoed the sentiments of the concerned faculty members.
“It shows a lack of trust which is a little disturbing,” said Erin Troy ’01.
However, not all students were offended by the suggestion of seating charts, and some members of the Honor and Discipline Committee agree that it might not be a bad idea.
“If there are things the faculty can do without going out of their way, without policing. . .like the formation of a seating chart. . .then they should be done,” said Osbourne-Roberts. “There is no reason they shouldn’t be.”
“It’s not a matter of professors not trusting students, but of protecting them from some students who may be dishonest, or who may be tempted,” he added.
Committee member Allen Wong ’00 said he thinks a seating plan might help students to remain aware of the requirements of the honor code .
“Ultimately the important thing is that teachers and students both be aware that the honor code is always in place,” he said. “Measures [like those suggested by Murphy] are good extensions of that mentality.”
In addition to advocating specific measures, Murphy also expressed frustration with the way the honor code is currently enforced. He said he is especially disturbed by the reluctance of some students to turn in fellow students for honor code violations.
“The foundation of the honor code as it was originally conceived in 1896 was that students would monitor each other very closely and report violations to the committee,” he said. “Since students are now extremely hesitant to turn another student inâ€” it happens, say, once in every five yearsâ€” I think that the honor code has devolved into an ‘honor procedure.’ ”
Professor of Political Science James McAllister agreed with Murphy’s assessment. “This year I asked 130 students in my Causes of War [class] whether they would turn in a fellow student for cheating,” McAllister said. “No one said they would…They value their friendship with other students more than they do holding up the timeless standards and values of Williams.”
“This does not mean that Williams students would not send me a private e-mail to turn in a cheaterâ€”actually, I think they would,” McAllister added. “However, any system that students will not openly defend is a little troubling. Whether instructors should rely on it is questionable.”
Murphy said he is frustrated by the fact that the responsibility of locating cheaters is left almost entirely up to the faculty as students rarely report on other students.
Murphy continued on to note that some of the mechanics of the honor code itself may be out-of-date and should be updated.
“[The situation today] is a very different way of doing things than the honor code assumes. . . . I think that perhaps it is time to update it.”
Professor of English and Faculty Chair of the Committee James Shepherd said he also felt that the code could use some reworking.
“My impression after having served on the committee is that the students tend to feel as though they don’t exert enough influence on the final outcome, and that the faculty tend to feel the same way.”
However, in the meantime, many students and professors say that it might be possible to reduce honor code violations by simply raising student awareness.
“What you see in a lot of cases [that come before the Honor and Discipline Committee], are claims of ignorance,” Wong said. “The committee is a little scared that you have so many cases that could probably be prevented if people had known … what the honor code entails.”
In order to keep students in tune with the specifics of the honor code committee members speak at first-year entries and also plan to speak with the Writing Workshop and the Math and Science Resource Center about teaching students proper citation technique.
Committee members report that they will also be talking with faculty members about ways to make the guidelines of the honor code more clear to their students.
“[Specific policies] are at the discretion of the professors,” said Wong. “But what shouldn’t be at the discretion of the professors is an obligation to address the honor code and explain it with enough clarity for students to understand how it applies.”
Professor of History Robert Dalzell agreed.
“The most important thing faculty can do is to be very, very clear about their expectations and about how the honor code applies to their own courses,” he said.