On being honor-bound

May 13, 2015 by Jack Hoover and Tyler Sparks

As students, we sometimes forget that the Honor Code is not a set of regulations imposed on us by the College’s faculty or administration. Rather, it is a contract agreed upon by members of the student body. It is a pact to maintain integrity among scholars seeking a shared educational experience according to a shared set of standards. As students that have served on the Honor and Discipline Committee (Hoover ’15 for two years and Sparks ’15, the current student chair, for four), we fear that the College’s tradition of academic integrity may be eroding, and we believe students have serious reason to be concerned. In our freshman year (2011-’12), the Honor and Discipline Committee (HDC) assigned sanctions, ranging from failure in the assignment to suspension, to 13 students. The following year, the number of hearings rose to 37, and it rose even higher last year to 46. While this academic year has not yet ended, the number of hearings appears to be on par with the past two years. Perhaps more are simply getting caught, rather than actually cheating, but nonetheless, these numbers are problematic and likely represent only a fraction of the actual academic dishonesty happening on campus.

Academic dishonesty affects all of us. The knowledge that peers are receiving credit for work they did not do drains the motivation and diverts the attention of students attempting to complete work honestly. It devalues the degree towards which we all devote four years of hard work. Dishonesty also contributes to grade inflation by artificially propping up some students’ scores, and by lowering honest students’ final grades in classes with curves. Furthermore, cheaters compel other students to cheat just to keep up. Given the high costs of an education at the College, financial and otherwise, students should find academic dishonesty not only troublesome but outrageous.

It is time for our community to address this issue. At the beginning of this year, HDC members visited entries to describe the Honor Code and discuss example cases. Members stressed that the standard sanction for violations is failure in the course. Each incoming class now signs an Honor Code book as an entry, affirming their commitment to the Honor Code. In hopes of creating physical reminders of this mutual commitment, we hope to display these books around campus. In addition, the HDC has adapted a short online tutorial about the Honor Code to help familiarize incoming students with its particulars. All first-years will be required to take the tutorial before pre-registering for classes during the summer. Current rising sophomores, juniors and seniors will take the tutorial next fall before pre-registration for spring classes. Finally, the HDC is exploring the possibility of incorporating a short statement affirming adherence to the Honor Code into all student assignments. A severe reduction in first-year cases this year indicates that these efforts have had a positive effect.

These steps amplify the spirit and prevalence of the Honor Code on campus, but still greater efforts are necessary. Currently, the HDC comprises eight elected voting student members, two from each class, along with a number of non-voting faculty members and Dean of the College Sarah Bolton. Though the students are elected annually, the HDC can at times appear opaque and austere to students not intimately involved in its processes. Some may view the students on the HDC as being hostile or malicious toward their fellow students. These characterizations are understandable but incorrect. The HDC’s strict confidentiality rules mean that what happens during hearings seldom reaches the wider campus.

In order to improve students’ perception of the HDC and to better foster the spirit of the Honor Code throughout campus, we propose a change to the HDC’s membership structure. While the eight permanent student members would remain and serve in all hearings, we propose that each hearing would also include up to four rotating student members drawn randomly from the wider campus body, one member from each class year. These rotating members would participate in a single hearing, in which they would have the same rights as permanent members. All members would also sign a binding confidentiality agreement not to discuss the case at all for a certain period of time after the hearing. After a fixed period, they would be permitted to talk about and hopefully to disseminate lessons learned from the experience (barring the details of the case, including any identifying features of the hearing). The maxim will be to, “Share the knowledge, not the details.” This structural reform would stimulate student engagement with the Honor Code and ensure that the power to dramatically affect the academic careers of individual students is not concentrated in the hands of too few.

Optimally, this change would be made through an amendment to the Statement of Academic Honesty that would also make participation in this “jury of peers” obligatory for all students. This would ensure that the pool from which peers are pulled is not self-selecting and that all sectors of the campus participate. Full participation is, by far, the most dramatic way we can change campus culture for the better. In accordance with the Statement of Academic Honesty, which has not been modified for nearly 50 years, instituting this historic change will require a referendum in which two-thirds of the student body votes and two-thirds of those voting approve. We believe that students are invested enough in this issue that this threshold can be met, especially following a campus-wide conversation. This vote will occur in tandem with the Honor Code tutorial next fall. We are starting the conversation now.

It is time for this campus to discuss seriously and to act definitively on academic dishonesty. Do we find academic dishonesty acceptable? What are we willing to do to lessen and eliminate it? No matter your academic or social inclinations, cheating affects you. We invite the campus community to debate, critique and ultimately to support this proposed amendment. In the end, let us recommit ourselves to the standards of academic integrity toward which we, as a community, must continually strive.

Jack Hoover ’15 is an Arabic studies major from Hudson, Ohio. He lives in Poker. Tyler Sparks ’15 is an economics major from Jarrettsville, Md. He lives on Meadow St.

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