Honor committee revises code

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On Sept. 10, Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom emailed the student body about two significant changes to the College’s academic Code of Conduct. The first narrows the scope of “reportable” Honor Code violations. The second details the sanctions and requirements that the Honor and Discipline Committee might issue in response to a student’s violation. Most notable is the “mandatory educational tutorial,” which, according to the Code of Conduct, is a new option “designed to educate students about the importance of academic integrity” and to “serve as a guide for proper practices around collaboration, citation, quotation and more.”

The eight student representatives of the Honor and Discipline Committee compiled these revisions last spring and first introduced them to the eight faculty members of the committee in May. Faculty chair and Professor of Sociology Olga Shevchenko noted that many violations have historically occurred due to lack of knowledge rather than malice. “Oftentimes, academic violations occur when students don’t really know how to properly cite, how to use sources or how to take notes in a way that minimizes the danger of direct citations creeping into the text unacknowledged,” she said.

Of the cases she saw last year, Shevchenko estimated that roughly a quarter resulted from misunderstanding and improper citation practices. In Shevchenko’s understanding, the members of the committee thought the previous version of the academic Code “was a bit of a blunt instrument that didn’t include any real tools for students to learn.” Reportable violations are included in a student’s formal disciplinary record, and students are required to declare them when asked about their college disciplinary history by other parties, like graduate schools or employers. Previously, reportable violations constituted the vast majority of violations, according to Sandstrom. “All cases in which students were found to have violated the [original] Honor Code resulted in a sanction that was reportable,” she said, adding that this reality often frustrated the student-run committee. Now, any violations that do not result in probation, suspension or expulsion are recorded temporarily in the dean’s office until they expire upon the student’s graduation. Thus, students who are not given probation or more serious punishments do not have to report having received any College discipline.

It is this class of violation that the revisions to the Code of Conduct attempt to address. “Honor Committee members are increasingly committed to approaching their work from an educational perspective rather than a strictly punitive one,” Sandstrom said.

The Honor and Discipline Committee is currently determining the form that a mandatory educational tutorial would take. “The educational tutorial is new, so much so that now we have to discuss what types of tutorials should be put together. Do they exist [already]? Are they available at other institutions?” Shevchenko said. Sandstrom added that it would be likely take the form of an online tutorial. Additionally, she noted that “student members of the Honor Committee are currently working on the content.”

These changes now bring the College’s approach to violations of the Honor Code in line with its approach to non-academic violations. “[Many] low-level violations typically result in non-reportable responses such as a letter of warning, a meeting with a dean, a self-reflective exercise or some other educational assignments,” Sandstrom noted. While the Code of Conduct updates do not substantially change non-academic (i.e., social or sexual) misconduct, “[the] newly created range of responses brings honor code violations more closely in line with the way other code violations are handled,” she said. Specifically, the updated Code of Conduct now stipulates that violations of the Honor Code resulting in a warning, a mandatory educational tutorial, failure in the assignment or failure in the course still do not “automatically become part of the student’s permanent record unless it is accompanied by disciplinary probation or suspension.”

Talks of these changes were also motivated in part by a recent increase in the number of cases that have been brought before the Honor and Discipline Committee, as Shevchenko oberserved. “We’re still trying to wrap our heads around why,” she said. “Just to give you a comparison, ten years ago I think the committee heard 15 cases. If you go 20 years back, I think it would be single digits – last year it was 34.” According to the Honor and Discipline Committee reports from the past 15 years, there has been an average annual increase of just under two cases per year.

According to Shevchenko, the source of this trend is currently not clear. “Is there more cheating? Are we just better at figuring it out now that we have digital search tools?… It’s a tricky question,” she said. “On the cusp of this, we felt that [because] more and more students are being affected by these sanctions and we have to make sure that they’re not affected solely punitively.”

These new policies will apply retroactively to students who have already received violations but have not yet had to report them. However, students who have already reported violations cannot have their reports withdrawn by the College.