Looking into the Honor Code

Last week, the Record reported an increase in violations of the Williams Honor Code. In order to speak to this growing problem, it is crucial that the Honor and Discipline Committee address the disregard for academic integrity as a troubling trend throughout higher education today. The rise in violations has less to do with Williams specifically than with an overall lackadaisical approach to academic standards of honesty and honor.

The definition of what constitutes cheating has changed dramatically as the Internet has expanded over the last decade. Easy access to millions of pages of information, including many of questionable authorship, has redefined the printed word. Though it may seem obvious, there are students unaware of the necessity of citing sources outside the physical reality of a textbook. While some schools have tried to curtail this development with the implementation of search engines used to scan for plagiarism, others have chosen the route of the honor code.

The College is wise to have selected the latter alternative, but the rise in violations makes it clear that further improvement of the code is required. As the current system stands, signing the Honor Code every year is compulsory. But what is the significance of that signature? Are students, and first-years in particular, fully aware of the implications of their endorsement?

During First Days this year, the Honor Code was merely one of many topics covered in quick succession at Chapin Hall. Without any pomp or circumstance, first-years were directed to sign the pledge and then turn it in while leaving Chapin. However, research has shown that emphasizing the gravity of academic integrity decreases occurrences of cheating. To treat the Honor Code as one more official document or fill-in-the-blank form diminishes its stature and importance.

Even though first-years are inundated with activities such as SPARC, learning to live with the entry is just as important as learning to follow the Honor Code’s guidelines. Perhaps the entries could also have a mediated group meeting including a discussion about academic integrity, followed by a chance to sign the code. Bringing the code into a smaller setting gives representatives of the Honor and Discipline Committee the opportunity to clearly define cheating. The administration must be certain that all students know what qualifies as ethical behavior.

Yet changing preventive measures is not enough; disciplinary practices should also be reevaluated. According to a recent article in the New York Times, Duke University has adopted a new policy for first-time offenders. Because punishments were very severe, few students were reported for violations. Though the dean continues to be informed of guilty students under the revised system, professors, not administrators, are responsible for determining disciplinary action for the first offense. The strictness of the action is at the discretion of the professor.

Duke’s new strategy runs counter to the movement in favor of zero-tolerance policies. In theory, zero-tolerance acts as a deterrent, dissuading potential offenders by its severity. But in practice, zero-tolerance policies often result in punishments that don’t fit the crime. The messiness of students claiming ignorance is eliminated, but at a high price. Zero-tolerance assumes guilt instead of innocence, a polemic supposition when one bears in mind the opprobrium attached to cheating.

Alternatively, making a distinction between one-time offenders and multiple offenders protects students guilty of negligence from unsuitably harsh consequences. Negligence does not legitimize wrongdoing, but it should not be treated in the same manner as a deliberate abuse of the code’s stipulations.

Adapting a policy similar to Duke’s at Williams would be a step in the right direction. As long as professors are willing to bear the burden of administering punishment, they should be granted greater authority. If the offense is of a serious nature, faculty members should also be given the option of sending the suspected student directly to the Honor and Discipline Committee. In other words, the severity of the first offense should be taken into consideration when determining whether or not the penalty belongs in the hands of the administration.

Though the increase in violations is no cause for panic, revision of the present policy is needed. The primary objectives of the Honor and Discipline Committee should be to communicate the significance of academic integrity to first-years and to distinguish between misunderstanding and premeditated defiance of Honor Code guidelines when administering penalties. Meeting these goals would bring Williams one step closer to having a self-policing student body with respect for the value of honor in academic pursuits. Ultimately, enjoying the benefits of high ethical standards is only possible by creating an environment where integrity is reinforced by the personal standards of the students themselves.