Deans, Honor Committee advocate accountability with new signing policy

As returning students, Williams upperclassmen pretty much know what to expect: picking up keys at housing, acquiring course packets at the registrar, stopping by Security for parking permits and then hoping that they do not have any holds on selfreg.

For the past three years, with the implementation of online registration, accessing and manipulating one’s schedule via selfreg is as symbolic of the beginning of school as brand new sneakers and notebooks.

Part of the selfreg process has involved agreeing with the pledge of academic honesty that appears before any actual registration is allowed. One has to respond “Y” to a screen full of honor code-related text to add or drop classes.

This year, however, in addition to the online registration, a new task is added to the arriving student’s “to do” list: stopping in Sawyer Library and signing the honor code by hand.

Much of the psychology behind this new plan is obvious.

The honor code is an integral aspect of academics at Williams and, as a policy, deserves to be taken seriously.

The act of signing the contract by hand, receiving one’s own signed copy of the contract – as well as an in-depth description of the honor code – allows greater access to the rules all students agree to live by when matriculating at Williams College.

There has been much talk about the motivations behind this initiative. Even some deans and senior advisors who have been active with the Honor and Discipline Committee admit they are unsure if there has been a rise in honor code violations since the introduction of online registration.

But according to Allen Wong ’00, Student Chair of the Honor Committee, the new initiative “is not in response to fluctuations [in the rate of honor code violations]. While there may have been fluctuations in the past years, this is to be expected. This is not a new idea. We have wanted to do something like this for a while.”

Wong emphasized that due to size constraints, the eight-person Honor Committee has found it difficult to execute many of its ideas. With the collaboration of Dean Kerry Christensen and the senior advisors, however, this initiative became a reality.

The actual motivations for such a move, Wong said, were symbolic, not practical. “Signing the honor code by hand serves to forcefully remind students of their agreement as well as impart to the students a sense of responsibility, of agency. The honor code allows us, as a community, to adopt institutionalized trust with each member of the community.

“Also, signing the honor code by hand makes clear and explicit the rules of academic honesty here at Williams.”

In 1995, one of President of the College Hank C. Payne’s first initiatives, coordinated by Dean Peter T. Murphy of the College, was an evaluation of residential life at Williams College, titled “The Residential Life Review.” The Council for Undergraduate Living (CUL) and the Honor Committee assessed the findings from the 1995 report and suggested ways in which the honor code could be strengthened at Williams.

Over the summer Christensen was appointed Associate Dean for Academic programs. Interested in the honor code, she worked closely with Wong in order to, in her own words, “find something that would work. It is important to take responsibility for all the work a student does.”

Christensen became involved with the honor code project because she feels it is a “crucial part of Williams’ identity. The Honor Committee is student run and student initiated. Hand signing the honor code is a method of claiming ownership of this rule.”

The signing of the honor code was administered and supervised entirely by students. Conducted by senior advisors and members of the Honor Committee, the honor code signing is a student-to-student initiative.

Kelly Grant ’00, a senior advisor who manned the table at Sawyer, estimated that about one third of all students skimmed the honor code before signing. Some asked questions, including “What if I don’t sign the honor code?” Grant said, “I respond that technically you cannot register for winter study, but in reality, by becoming a Williams college student you have already made the commitment to abide by this code.”

Grant also emphasized that with the new tactic of hand signing the honor code students can no longer claim ignorance when brought before the committee. Although ignorance was never accepted as an excuse for breaking a rule of the honor code, for a majority of violations students have claimed that they were unaware that what they did was considered illegal. Now students are presented with their own copy of the code, and a diagnostic test to see how well they know the honor code in addition to physically signing the contract.

Additionally, the Honor Committee had the location of the honor code statement in the student handbook changed to a more prominent position. Now it is classified as “Academic Honesty and Honor Code” so it is the first item listed alphabetically under policies in the handbook.

Clearly the deans and the students involved with this initiative understand the importance of the honor code and hope that students will internalize its importance, but what do students think?

Kaitlin Rahl ’02 said, “I am ambivalent about how effective hand signing the honor code will be because I do not see it affecting those not bound by enough moral conduct to know not to cheat. However, it is helpful to have specific guidelines which are readily available.” Rahl also mentioned she has experienced a difference between cheating at Williams, which she has not encountered, and cheating at her high school, which had no honor code.

Gisele Pinck ’02 said she thinks the new honor code policy “is important in that it allows mutual trust between professors and students. It will probably not prevent people who would cheat from cheating. The main difference might be that those people who unintentionally broke the honor code now have more information and may realize their mistake before they make it.”