College sustains focus on academic integrity

Before enrolling in courses, all students at the College are required to sign a Statement of Academic Honesty, which requires their agreement to the College’s academic Honor Code. Despite this stipulation, the College’s Honor Committee has continued to see upward of a dozen cases each year for the past several academic years, with three cases on the books so far this fall. While the administration is not currently revisiting the College’s Honor Code or Statement of Academic Honesty, the Honor Committee is aiming to increase awareness of the importance of academic integrity as a community standard.

History and evolution of the Honor Code

The College adopted its current honor code in 1971 after the Student Honor System Committee proposed the Statement of Academic Honesty as a replacement of the College’s previous honor system, introduced in 1896, which relied heavily upon students to police one another. This revision was prompted largely by students’ increasing unwillingness to police their peers as well as by the introduction of self-scheduled exams at the College.

Students also found the original honor system to be unnecessarily stifling in that it “[defined] fraud specifically” and did not take into account open-book tests or tests with pre-assigned topics in which discussion “may or may not be encouraged.” It also set a one-hour limit on the length of exams and declared “that there can only be two hour-long tests per course each semester.” Furthermore, it dealt with plagiarism differently than other cases of misrepresentation in that it allowed for “little or no flexibility in the type of punishment a violator [received]” (“Statement proposed to replace honor system,” May 5, 1971).

The four-part Statement of Academic Honesty that replaced the original honor system in 1971 is essentially the basis of the College’s current Honor Code that students are required to sign at the onset of the academic year.

When drafted in 1971, this statement highlighted the “desirability and the necessity” of academic honesty, stipulating that “anyone who misrepresents his own work or purposely collaborates with another in the misrepresentation of that person’s work” is guilty of academic dishonesty. It also outlined the existence of a Student Honor System Committee and tasked this committee of students with the responsibility “for determining the accused’s guilt or innocence and settling the punishment.” “The committee is responsible for informing the student body of this statement,” the statement read.

Currently, the College’s Honor Code specifies that “students pledge themselves to observe the Statement of Academic Honesty and Honor Code and are expected to report violations of the code to the student or faculty chair of the Honor System Committee.”

According to the Honor Committee’s website, “a quorum of three-quarters shall be required for the committee to meet. A vote of guilty by at least three-quarters of those present is necessary for conviction. A recommendation for dismissal must be made by unanimous vote of those present and shall be carried out only with the assent of the president of the College.”

If an alleged violation occurs, the committee must decide if the student’s behavior is in violation of the code, if the accused student in fact committed this behavior and what penalty the dean should impose if the student is found guilty of violating the Honor Code. Both student and faculty committee members participate in the hearing, though only student members vote.

“The students and faculty on the Honor Committee educate each other,” said Cheryl Shanks, professor of political science and faculty chair of the Honor Committee. She added that if professors suspect an Honor Code violation, they are required to report it to the committee.

According to Dean Bolton, the Honor Code has not changed significantly over time, even with the advent of modern technology such as the Internet and cell phones. “The core principles remain the same; the work you turn in must be your own,” Bolton explained. “If you use sources other than your own brain, you must acknowledge them. That applies to old-fashioned sources like books or journals, or conversations with friends or stone tablets in exactly the same way as it applies to blogs or tweets or cell phone conversations.”

Bolton did acknowledge that it is worthwhile to remind students of “ways that new technology might play unexpected roles,” as the Honor Committee did in an Oct. 11 email reminding students that using a cell phone at all during an exam – even as a clock or calculator – may be construed as cheating.

“Fundamentally, though, the Honor Code covers the same principles, regardless of dramatic changes in the ways we access information,” Bolton said.

Current Honor Code policy and recent violations

According to the Honor and Discipline Committee’s report from the 2009-2010 academic year, the committee heard 13 cases of accused Honor Code violations by first-years, sophomores, juniors and seniors alike, with punishments ranging from failing the assignment in question to receiving disciplinary probation for as long as three semesters.

In one instance, a senior was “accused of copying verbatim text from an online source without proper quotation or attribution,” according to the report. As a result, the student did not graduate with his class. The report of last year’s violations has yet to be published; according to Will Su ’12, chair of the Honor Committee, the numbers are not yet available.

“Unfortunately [the number of cases in recent years] has no clear declining pattern despite our efforts,” said Su. He added that “You never know what other cases could have come up.”

Shanks said that the College’s Honor Code exists to enforce “community standards.” She noted that if there were no over-arching standard for academic honesty at the College, different professors would inherently treat matters differently. “We need community standards,” Shanks said.

Su said that the committee primarily meets when there are cases that need to be heard and that cases arise always around midterms and finals.

“The more rigid the due date, the more people panic and commit violations,” Shanks said.

According to Su, the committee has dealt with three cases so far this year, including two that carried over from last spring. According to the Honor Committee’s website, there were 13 cases in the 2008-2009 academic year, 15 in 2007-2008, 22 in 2006-2007 and 12 in 2005-2006. The report from last spring has not yet been published.

“Some cases are far more malicious than others,” Su added. “Some are accidental. I estimate 80 percent of cases are the unfortunate results of people making very stupid choices … It’s one thing when something is blatantly malicious … However, most cases are good people who have made terrible decisions …. and that is the kind of thing I thought could be prevented or worked against with a simple reminder.”

Traditionally, Su and committee members have visited first-year entries to discuss the College’s Honor Code and the implications of violating it. “We [also] decided that it was a good idea for the honor chair or dean of the college to send a reminder email around midterms,” Su added. “We don’t want it to come off as a babyish way of coddling you, but believe it’s a helpful reminder of the resources we have and that we’re all going through that stressful experience. It’s easy to be honorable when there’s no pressure.”

Perceptions of the Honor Code

The College’s Honor Code directly affects faculty and students. Faculty have to continue to maintain the capacity to develop and restructure the Honor Code, as well as the responsibility of enforcing its standards within the classroom. And naturally, it is students who are expected to live up to the College’s standard of academic honesty and accountability.

“Generally, faculty and students are on the same page in terms of [Honor Committee] decisions,” Shanks said. “The only time there is conflict is when somebody on the committee knows something someone else doesn’t.”

“The Honor Code means that students at Williams respect and value academic integrity,” Bolton said. “It represents the expectation that Williams students will hold themselves to high standards of integrity in every assignment, exam, paper or other exercise they turn in, whether graded or ungraded.”

Bolton added that the results of the Honor Code are visible in various academic situations, including when professors leave students to take an exam unsupervised, allow students to collaborate on assignments or take students at their word about a personal problem that has left them in need of an extension on an assignment.

“The academic culture here is that students respect themselves, their peers, their teachers and their work,” Bolton said. “So they produce excellent work honestly, without needing policing.”

“The Honor Code was, it seems, as it is today, something that in general was taken very seriously,” said Kathryn Kent ’88, professor of English, about her experience with the Honor Code as both a student and a faculty member.

“I remember at first thinking how amazing it was that professors could hand out exams and then leave, trusting everyone not to cheat.”

Despite recent student infringements of the Honor Code, most current students not only agree to sign the code out of necessity but also believe that the presence of an honor system is beneficial to the College.

“I think that the Honor Code at Williams does have its place,” Katy Newcomer ’14 said. “Often my professors, namely in the sciences, give group homework assignments and expect us to work together. It gives me the opportunity to do my work in a group and not stress out alone in my room, and the Honor Code keeps [my professor] from worrying that someone will just copy the answers. In the end I think it’s the best system.”

Matt Crimp ’12 sees it as “interesting” that agreeing to the Honor Code means “that we have to ‘sign’, meaning checking a little box” online at the beginning of the year. “It’s a pretty Western cultural tradition to have to explicitly write out what our ‘honor’ is, to have to put everything in words, because obviously nobody reads it,” he said of the obligation students have to agree explicitly to the Honor Code. “And most of the time it’s pretty clear what most people would consider to be ‘honorable’ in a certain academic situation.”

Jason Hernandez ’13 sees value in the Honor Code but recognizes its limitations. “The Honor Code is necessary and helps to weed out plagiarists, but only if they get caught,” Hernandez said. “If there are professors who don’t check every paper for plagiarism, or who just put the first paragraph into a search engine, instead of deterring students from doing such a thing, the Honor Code and professors who don’t do a thorough enough check may just help instigate more intelligent ways of [cheating] on the work.”

Lia McInerney ’12 said that most of what the Statement of Academic Honesty covers may seem obvious, but other details are less so, such as “somebody getting into trouble for accidental plagiarism, that might not be so readily apparent.”

“It does make me nervous sometimes,” she said. “Having friends look over papers and give you advice, where do you draw the line?”

McInerney added that it is common for students to “often have their friends read over their essays” when applying for scholarships or fellowships. “That’s something that a professor would do, I think,” she continued. “When are they just giving you ideas and when are they correcting your grammar?” McInerney suggested that it would be helpful if the Honor Committee sent out some sort of document with anonymous or even hypothetical cases of how people can break the Honor Code unknowingly.

“I would think it would be interesting because I think anecdotes are more appealing to people than just a list of things that you should and shouldn’t do, just from a purely psychological standpoint,” McInerney said. “That would jump out at people more in an e-mail.”

Moving forward with the Honor Code

According to Su, the Honor Committee began an initiative last year “to clarify the language that professors put on their syllabus” so that the importance of academic honesty comes across to students.

According to Bolton, the College’s administrative staff is still continuing to examine student academic life. “Everyone is interested in how students access information, and what new issues changes in access may present,” Bolton said. “But the Honor Code is not an active topic in the sense of considering changes in its basic shape or principles. Those have served generations of students, faculty and staff well, and they continue to do so.”

Additional reporting by Emily Dugdale, Katy Gathright and Lily Nienstedt, Record staff.