Moving forward: Why the 8+4 campaign is the next step for academic honesty

For 120 years, the Honor Code has been a part of academic life at the College. In 1896, students voted 247 to 42 in favor of implementing a system of values that would foster “the free exchange of ideas.” The Code was first created through efforts led by the Gargoyle Society in 1895. “The object of this organization shall be to discuss College matters, and take active steps for the advancement of Williams in every branch of College life and work,” the group stated, “and to exert itself against anything which it considers detrimental to such advancement.” They had determined that academic dishonor was among those detriments.

The function of the Honor and Discipline Committee (HDC) remains the same all these years later, even though our procedures have evolved. It is no surprise then that, in 2016, we are currently grappling – as a community – with what the Honor Code means and represents, as we are living in an increasingly digital age where plagiarism and cheating are on the rise. During the 2013–14 academic year alone, the HDC heard 30 cases; the year before, it heard 34. This academic year, the Committee, on which I serve, has already heard more than 20 cases, and the year is not yet over.

For some, “academic honesty” means nothing more than checked boxes on PeopleSoft allegedly signifying that one has read and agreed to the Honor Code’s tenets. As one of my predecessors, James Elish ’13, has noted, “Our best guess is that for every case that comes before the HDC, there are at least four infractions that go unnoticed” (“Honor in name only,” Feb. 6, 2013). There are many students who plagiarize papers and may never be found guilty, and there are plenty of others who use the Internet on take-home exams that we may never know about. Indeed, “honor” requires character and a strong moral compass to guide how one upholds the Honor Code even when no one is looking.

When accused students are brought before the HDC, student and faculty members listen carefully both to the voices of  professors who bring cases forward and to those of the accused students who shed light on the assignments in question. Deliberation period proves to be a time when committee members work their hardest. We debate, go back and forth, ask questions, dig deep and deeper and try our very best to reach a conclusion that gives credence to the power of transparency, truth-telling, honor and justice.

These cases are never easy. Committee members are not hungry to fail students nor are we interested in unnecessarily sending students away from campus with suspensions or expulsions. In fact, for HDC members, most deliberation periods present the daunting task of sanctioning a fellow student with a punitive measure that will negatively affect their transcript. Nonetheless, we need a standard of academic honesty, and we must hold each other accountable – committee members and non-committee members alike.

It is for this reason that, when Bryan Jones ’16 and my fellow HDC member Jonathon Burne ’17 approached me about the 8+4 campaign, I listened. 8+4 proposes adding four rotating non-HDC members to the current eight elected honor committee members. The idea of opening honor hearings to a wider base of students is attractive, especially if more students will be cycling into our normally closed HDC hearings on a regular basis. This will mean that more students will become aware about the Honor Code and our work, and hopefully, the number of cases will decrease. Even though the regulations for the rotating four still need to be solidified, the proposal deserves the College community’s full attention.

As student chair, I often hear that the HDC is “unfair,” “brutal” or “mean.” In fact, if we compare our work to our peer institutions, we have a thorough process. For example, our HDC hearings are confidential and private, even though at some institutions they are held publicly before entire campuses. Contrary to popular belief, committee members often wrestle with how some of our procedures seem outdated or in need of fine-tuning. Many of us on the HDC are unable to attend to the question of “reformation” because we are often consumed with the increasing number of cases. The 8+4 campaign is an important intervention. It is a call to reconsider the role of the Honor Code and the HDC in the present and future life of the College. As student chair, I endorse the 8+4 campaign and welcome students and faculty to work with the HDC to create a process that aligns with our communal vision and values. I also encourage us to think about how significant this moment is historically. Our Honor Code has been with us for more than a century, and it should stay with us, even if that means reshaping it and the HDC into something that feels more right.

Ahmad Greene-Hayes ’16 is a history major and Africana Studies concentrator from Newark, N.J. He lives in Perry. 

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