Murphy protests the unwillingness of students to turn in those who cheat

If you ask a member of the faculty about the effect the Honor Code has on teaching, I think most would say something like this: that the effect of the Honor Code on faculty members is by and large simply the creation of a sense that they aren’t supposed to think about cheating, because they feel that they aren’t allowed to in a school where the Honor Code is “student-governed.”

They are supposed to assume that everyone is honest. The student twin to this attitude is the blank look I typically get when I insist that students should turn each other in for cheating; or the regular anonymous notes I get, or professors get, saying that cheating has happened, notes in which the student is willing to denounce cheating, but unwilling to step forward and say it openly and usefully.

A challenge to these attitudes I have been trying out lately is saying that this is quite precisely wrong; by “precisely” I mean that it is a precise inverse of the truth. The existence of the Honor Code does not imply that cheating doesn’t exist; in fact, it marks very clearly that it does, and that we need to be on guard to prevent it from happening. In particular, in its foundation, it says that we should confront, through referral to the Honor Committee, people who cheat.

This is the meaning of “code” in “honor code,” not a code of law, a process, but a way of living, a culture of honesty maintained by vigilance and openness. It means “a code we live by.”

I think that the current interpretation, which holds more or less that each person is only accountable to themselves and for their own moral state, is a fallen and evasive interpretation accepted in the last iteration of change in the Honor Code in 1971.

It cannot mean that: it must mean that we are all accountable to each other.

It must mean real community accountability, or it will in the end name only a process through which people are punished. I know this, because I have spent the last four years or so as the chief policeman of the Honor Code. It is not a particularly happy task, but it is very clearly an important one. It is important because so many people have abdicated their responsibility for maintaining it.

The current way of thinking is that enforcing the Honor Code means faculty catch students cheating and refer those cases to a committee on which the faculty does not vote.

Students routinely lie about it, cover up the offenses of their friends, or simply watch passively while it happens.

Professors forget to explain it or resist explaining it. Faculty resist the old-fashioned methods for discouraging cheating, mostly, I think, because they worry about insulting the moral integrity of their students.

All in all, the culture of the Honor Code at Williams has become a culture in which non-students, deans or professors, catch cheaters if they can. It is a culture of enforcement, not a culture of mutual responsibility.

If we cannot find a way to reinvigorate the Honor Code as a code for living, a way of describing how students should behave that everyone, especially students, is willing to buy into and actively support, then we should abandon the current system. If students are unwilling to watch and confront each other, then why should the Honor Committee, and the Honor System, be run by students only?

We could be honest on this point and say that it is now simply up to the faculty to catch cheating, and let the civil war begin. Without a strong sense of student responsibility, the Honor Code becomes only a way of organizing the intervention of Power in a kind of assumed “subculture” of student life. I think that is an unhappy state of things, and very likely unwanted even by students who would rather let others deal with it. It describes damage to some of Williams’ greatest strengths: its intimacy, its astonishing intellectual energy, its long-standing traditions of student self-governance. Governance, as I have learned of late, is hard work.

It tends to make some people angry, especially those who are being called to account and asked to behave differently. I can certainly understand, from a plainly human point of view, the resistance to turning in friends, or turning in people that look like they might hurt you for doing so (the most common excuse I hear). It is easier, from a daily point of view, to let the student chair of the Honor Committee, the dean or the professor look after things.

But that is not an Honor Code: it is its opposite. It is the abdication of responsibility. As with other challenges that currently beset and threaten our community (the role of alcohol is another example) we will not make progress, or stay even, without a broad community discussion, and broad community acceptance of certain responsibilities.

The faculty needs to be let back into discussion, into a partnership concerning academic honesty. They need to want to slough off the pleasantly undemanding sense that the students will take care of it by themselves.

Students need to decide if they want an Honor Code or an imposed and plainly punitive process. In the meantime, I think we should speak somewhat less proudly of the great tradition of the Honor Code. At the moment, it looks more like regular life; the police chase down the Bad Guys while everyone else watches.

Peter Murphy is dean of the College.