Honor in name only

By the end of the year, assuming that the current trend continues, a full 3 percent of the Williams College student body will have been found guilty of academic dishonesty by the Honor and Discipline Committee. If 3 percent sounds like a relatively small portion of our community,  think again. Our best guess is that for every case that comes before the Honor and Discipline Committee, there are at least four infractions that go unnoticed.  Even if our estimates are off by a bit, the number of Williams students who have engaged in academic dishonesty is alarming. Our academic community faces a serious ethical problem.

To put the issue in perspective, the number of cases this past semester alone surpassed the yearly total of cases for every year listed on the Honor and Discipline website; in other words, the rate of infractions has quadrupled. While not every potential case results in a hearing, a full 11 percent of the Williams College faculty have expressed Honor related concerns this past semester. While it remains to be seen if the second semester will prove as alarming as the first, there is good reason to believe that it will. Though the unexpected rise in Honor cases remains largely unknown to the student body, it is common knowledge amongst the faculty. As a result of the sharp rise in cheating, professors are understandably more cautious when administering and grading assignments. This heightened surveillance has, and will continue to, result in more cases.

It is the role of the professor to guide and to teach. Our academic community is cheapened and made less effective when our professors must provide both instruction and detective services. This spike in dishonesty also makes us hypocrites. How can the Admissions Office trumpet our Honor Code as a selling point? How can we point to our rankings with pride? For an institution dedicated to many things, but always primarily to academics, cheating makes Williams fraudulent.

The Honor Code and the Statement of Academic Honesty are the physical manifestations of the trust that must be present for an academic community to function. The ability to have take-home and self-scheduled exams is a privilege contingent on a communal appreciation of the Honor Code. Many of the cases that come before the Committee are linked to these types of assignments. Clearly, the necessary trust has been altered – if not altogether broken. It would be not be surprising if many professors decided not to give take-home assignments this spring.

If asked, it is unlikely that any given Williams student could outline the key points of the Statement of Academic Honesty or the Guidelines that accompany it. Most could reason that it forbids cheating and dishonest representation, but the specifics would prove elusive. It might be argued that the language is less important than the message. But how can we agree to uphold a standard that we cannot remember? The specific language of the Honor Code is important. It promotes intellectual honesty based on three basic principles. The first is that we must be honest with ourselves; our work must be our own. The second is that we must be academically forthcoming with our professors. The third is that we must be accountable to one another.

This third pillar of the Honor Code does not necessarily mean that we must be investigating one another, though we are required by the Honor Code to say something if we do, indeed, see something. As a community we should discuss the Honor Code more often and better educate students about possible infractions. If in the presence of a possible violation, we must take it upon ourselves to prevent perpetuating dishonesty. At peer institutions (Davidson, Swarthmore) with strong communal emphasis on the Honor Code, students turn themselves in to the Honor Committee. They do this, not for fear of eventual discovery, but because of an expectation perpetuated by their peers. This expectation is lacking at Williams. We need to hold one another to a higher standard and create an environment that furthers academic trust.

In addition to a change in mentality, there are concrete steps that can be taken to re-emphasize the importance of the Honor Code. Currently, the Honor Committee, the Dean’s Office and College Council, are pursuing these changes. The change that is easiest to change is how the Code is signed. Many students accused of academic dishonesty plead ignorance. Although ignorance of proper citation or of the Honor Code is not a defense, it is telling that so many students fall back on it. Better education on proper citation and what is meant by plagiarism will both reduce the number of infractions and eliminate the question of ignorance from future proceedings.

The manner in which we individually agree to the Honor Code speaks to our communal disregard. Before signing up for classes, a couple of boxes on Peoplesoft must be checked. For most students, these boxes provide the totality of Honor Code interaction. This lack of regard is not entirely the fault of the student body, as the Honor Code is made easy to ignore and simple to forget. I am sure that many students will read this article and think that, since they do not cheat, it does not matter how they agree to the Honor Code. I would argue that one of the answers to the heightened level of communal dishonesty is a greater value placed on academic integrity. The current manner of signing the code suggests that we do not value it highly. Changing the basic signing procedure can start to alter the communal valuation.

As a community, we have a problem. As student chair of the Honor Committee, I have a problem as well. The current number of cases signifies a need on the Committee’s behalf to better educate and engage with the community. It is my hope that this editorial will start to ameliorate that deficiency. We must hold ourselves communally accountable to a standard of Honor that, at present, simply does not exist.

James Elish ’13 is a history major from New York, N.Y.  He lives in Prospect.

  • Eric

    Scary rise in dishonesty, but I’m not sure about the proposed solutions. Changing the way we sign the Honor Code or generally promoting awareness of it would simply breed resentment, I think. It creates an us-them mentality – the administration reminding us what the rules are and shoving them in our faces.

    The better approaches, in my eyes, are to shift towards an entirely student-written honor code (like Haverford) or to focus more on the underlying issues that lead students to cheat. I imagine that when a student is academically dishonest, they don’t think of their peers or of themselves at all – they simply think how not to get caught and whether it’s worth the risk. So the ways to reduce cheating would be to either emphasize communal responsibility or an individual’s motives – which would probably be Williams’ goal-oriented obsession over grades rather than learning for learning’s sake.

    These issues are always going to arise at colleges full of competitive and ambitious people, and I’m not sure how to deal with them. But the idea that the Code is the key to changing people’s attitudes seems a little ridiculous. Students need something relatable if attitudes are going to change: we can relate to our community and the way our actions affect them, and we can relate to the fears and insecurities that drive people to be dishonest – but we cannot relate to a simple list of rules from the administration, no matter how publicized.