Students, faculty explain the function and purpose of the College’s honor code

While all first-years are required to agree to the Honor Code, many simply skim through it and are unfamiliar with its actual policies. How does the Honor Code, created by a vote of Williams students on March 17, 1896, actually work?

According to the Honor Code, “Reports [of violations] are to be submitted to the Student Honor Committee, consisting of eight student members of the joint Faculty-Student Honor System-Discipline Committee.” If the committee determines that a violation may have occurred, it is discussed at a hearing. At the hearing, both the accused student and accuser provide evidence to support their cases. At this time, the committee can ask questions. After the accused, accuser and any witnesses leave, the committee deliberates to answer the following three questions, as listed on the Honor Code web page: “Is the alleged behavior an infraction of the Honor Code? If it is, did the accused student commit the infraction? If he/she did, what penalty is recommended to the Dean?”

“Professors typically contact the faculty chair if they suspect there has been a violation. That can mean a student reported someone else in the class, it can mean that they themselves reading a paper noticed a shift in tone or that the student is referencing odd things or books we can’t find in our library. A professor will talk to me, and I will go over evidence with them that they bring to me, and then I decide if it is suspicious enough to go to a hearing,” Professor Gretchen Long, Faculty Chair of the Honor Committee, said.

All committee members present may discuss the case, but only the student members vote. Three-quarters of the students are necessary to convict and recommend a sanction to the Dean, but students can endorse separate recommended sanctions if three-quarters cannot agree on a sanction. If the sanction recommended is dismissal, all students present must agree, and dismissal only occurs with the agreement of the Dean and the President of the College. The standard sanction issued is failure in the course, but sanctions are decided on a case-by-case basis, with no automatic penalties.

“There all kinds of reasons to dial up a punishment or turn one down from failure,” Long said.

According to Tyler Sparks ’15, Student Chair of the Honor Committee, the punishment should match up with disincentivizing students from committing academic dishonesty. If a student were to be given failure in an assignment for cheating where they would have done poorly had they not cheated, there is no incentive to not cheat. Therefore, punishments should typically be more severe than failure in the assignment. However, the Honor Committee does believe in fairness, so punishments should not be too strict, either.

Following a hearing, if an accused student believes there is substantial new exonerating evidence, or the committee followed procedure improperly, he or she can request an appeal. An appeal must be accepted by a majority of the committee members who heard the original case, who can chose to re-hear the whole or part of the case. Any decision made by the Dean following the appeal is final.

Recent Cases

In the 2012-13 academic year, 51 cases were brought to the Honor Committee, 31 of which made it to the hearing stage. Of these 31 cases, the accused student was found not guilty in three. In the remaining 28 cases, two students were assigned a punishment of failure in the assignment, while in the other 26 cases, the student failed the course. Of students given failure in the course, 10 received the additional punishment of disciplinary probation and three received suspensions. In total, 10 hearings were for accused first-years, 12 for sophomores, six for juniors and two for seniors. While that year’s cases were concentrated among underclassmen, Long does not believe this is a serious concern.

“It is actually much more evenly spread out than I thought it would be when I took this on. There are maybe a few more first years, which I think is a problem that we have nearly as many upperclassmen that caught up in this. [In high school] people have had radically different types of citations. There is a disconnect between professors who come from graduate school, and so that’s why we want professors to be specific with underclassmen about what needs to be cited,” Long said.

Of the 31 cases, 18 were for plagiarism or improper citations on papers or lab reports, six were for using an online solution on a take-home exam, three were for attempting to deceive a professor in some form, two were for using a solution manual on a problem set, one was for copying another student’s test and one was for turning in the same work for two courses. The Committee doesn’t keep track of how violations are distributed across subject areas.
The 2012-13 academic year had the most hearings in the 10-year period for which Honor Committee Reports are available online. In the nine years from 2003-04 to 2011-12, the Honor Committee held less than 14 cases on average each year.

“Ideally, we would have zero cases,” Sparks said.

“Most of the time, the Honor Code is working. However, the higher number of cases in the past year is worrisome,” Long said. Long believes that the recent increased availability of the Internet has increased the potential for violations.

Peer Schools

“There are stronger cultures of integrity at schools other than Williams. There is not the same emphasis on the Honor Code as at other schools; it is not as pervasive. There is not as much student accountability as at other schools” Sparks said.

During the 2012-13 school year, at Middlebury College, which has a similar honor code, a student conducted a survey for an Economics course about the prevalence of cheating on campus. He found that 35 percent admitted to violating the honor code at least once during that school year, according to The Middlebury Campus.

In the past, the College had a policy of un-proctored exams. However, in its most recent review of the Honor Code in 2012-13, the Honor Code Review Committee recommended that professors be allowed to request permission to proctor exams. Since then, the Economics department received permission to universally proctor their exams.

“It is an acknowledgement that things aren’t ideal,” Professor Steve Abbott, a math professor at Middlebury and a member of the 2012-13 Honor Code Review Committee said.

“I know that things we see with the honor committee are things that can easily go undetected. We don’t proctor exams very closely,” Long said. “What that should mean is there is trust, but I think part of what an honor code is if you really want to cheat, you can.”

In the Middlebury review, the committee also recommended that there be more faculty education about the honor code and that professors outline more clear guidelines for how the honor code applies to their department. “That [department honor code statements] was a way of trying to create booster shots, mid-College year reinforcements,” Abbott said.

Similar to Williams, Middlebury’s Honor Code outlines that students are obligated to report violations of other students. “Their argument that that person is only hurting themselves, I find that patently false,” Abbott said. “It hurts everybody. It affects the way faculty design assignments. If you are thinking of cheat proof assignments, then you are not designing the best pedagogical assignments. When I grade a suprisingly strong piece of work by a student who I know has struggled, my reaction should be excitement not suspicion.”

“The Honor Code forms an important core of the community of learners here at Williams,” Dean of the College Sarah Bolton said. “By reminding all students, staff and faculty of the shared expectation of intellectual integrity, it also brings a wide variety of freedoms. The Honor Code students can take exams without proctors and collaborate constructively on developing ideas for projects. The code requires a shared integrity – that students will be careful to give credit to the ideas, words and arguments of others.  The effectiveness of the Honor Code isn’t perfect, and violations happen. However, without the code, Williams would be a very different – and lesser – place to teach and to learn.”

Other schools have alternative and, in some cases, harsher means of preventing academic dishonesty. Virginia, for example, relies on a single sanction policy in which the only disciplinary power of its honor committee is to “exclude permanently from student status University students found to have committed honor violations,” per the committee’s constitution.

Haverford asks applicants to write a supplementary essay regarding its honor code and holds campus-wide meetings to consider changes to the code. Haverford’s honor committee depends not on harsh punishments but on stressing the importance of honesty in hopes that students will internalize the honor code. Part of a punishment for cheating,  might include sending an apology email to the student body. Many schools’ honor codes attempt to instill a sense that cheating violates the entire community and the validity of the degree in an attempt to bring about peer proctoring. At Hamilton, for example, students are told to tap their pencils on their desks if they witness cheating during an exam. Meanwhile, surveys, like the 2009 one at Princeton in which only 4 of 85 students who said they witnessed cheating reported it, cast the doubt on the effectiveness of peer proctoring.

“Ours is written so the failure to report is not a violation; at some schools it is written as this,” Long said.

“I think our sanctions have more flexibility. If an accused student has dragged in someone else unbeknown to that person, I think the committee takes a pretty dim view. That is something that really seems to violate the Honor Code in a personal kind of way, but usually for a first time offense, there is not normally a separation [from the College],” Long said.

Motivation

“I think a more common denominator is ‘it’s late at night, someone isn’t really prepared.’ Williams is chalk-full of good students who aren’t used to getting Fs,” Long said. “I think it can feel like they are about to fail an assignment or  course and have their GPA lowered in some way that is irreputable. In the middle of the night, things seem very scary, but in the light of day, certainly these grades aren’t as bad as an honor code violation.

In the past three years, Abbott saw four cases of students cheating on tests in his math classes at Middlebury. “It’s a small sample size, and I don’t know what that means, but it felt to me like there was a sense that maybe the pressure of performance for grades of the overall stress on students was taking its toll in a way that was really unhealthy.”

Increasing Awareness

The Honor Committee believes they can decrease academic dishonesty by increasing awareness about the Honor Code.

“We are trying to prioritize education, keeping it more on top of students’ minds,” said Sparks.

This year, for the first time, members of the Honor Committee visited entries to discuss the Honor Code. Additionally, for the first time, members of the Honor Committee talked to the faculty about the Honor Code.

“We have to instruct in ways to show how easy it is to mix other ideas with your own. I don’t know where I’d be without borrowing and stealing others’ ideas, but these ideas need to be cited,” Long said. Sparks also believes that professors should go over their expectations with students.
“Students should know that a bad grade, and not betraying their community, is better than failing the whole course,” Long said.

A Social Honor Code

In the wake of the hate crimes the campus witnessed in the last few years, some have called for the creation of a social honor code to govern interactions between students and other members of the College community. Serious offenses such as hate crimes, however, would fall under the jurisdiction of the existent Code of Conduct and likely be investigated by the Dean’s Office.

“Maybe we don’t need a social honor code. We could just restructure the Code of Conduct because a social honor code would be under separate framework but would overlap in function with the Code of Conduct,” Justin Adkins, an assistant-director at the Davis Center, said.

A social honor code could, however, promote tolerance by encouraging students to cooperate on smaller issues. According to Adkins, students would be encouraged to resolve small problems like noise complaints amongst themselves rather than call Campus Safety and Security. Other steps might include intervention by Junior Advisors or trained student mediators. This could promote more social accountability and dealing with some of the challenges of diversity the College faces.

Haverford divides its honor code into academic and social codes.

“Our community’s social relationships are also based on mutual trust, concern and respect. We must consider how our words and actions, regardless of the medium, may affect the sense of acceptance essential to an individual’s or group’s participation in the community. We strive to foster an environment that genuinely encourages respectful expression of differing values in honest and open discussion. Upon encountering actions or values that we find degrading to ourselves and to others, we should initiate dialogue with the goal of increasing mutual understanding,” Haverford’s honor code says.

There are currently no plans to implement a social honor code, but the impetus to do so is on the student body. A College Council resolution and a student vote is the most likely path to creating a social honor code.