by Kimberly Yavorski

The recent admissions cheating scandals highlight a potential crisis in academia, indicating that perhaps we need to place more focus on personal responsibility and good citizenship—in effect, to restore “honor” to our campuses.

For centuries, honor codes have made honorable behavior an expectation; a number of schools have added their own versions of an honor code over the past few decades. This article looks at the following facets of this topic:

  • The honor code tradition
  • Is an honor code still relevant?
  • Honor codes are different from  academic honesty policies
  • Honor codes do more than reduce cheating
  • Clarify what constitutes academic dishonesty
  • Make the honor code part of daily life
  • Make it easy to be honest
  • Make students part of the process
  • Building a culture of trust

The honor code tradition

William and Mary college honor codeThe honor code tradition in the U.S. dates back to 1779 when it was first instituted at The College of William and Mary. While cheating is taken seriously at all colleges, a formal “honor code” is a social contract that is meant to inspire students to not only prioritize personal integrity but also to watch out for and support their peers. Academic honesty is a priority at honor code colleges and universities, but at some schools, the code extends to social life as well.

Some schools have lengthy documents that detail expectations. Others, like University of Virginia, have very simple codes. At UVA, students pledge “never to lie, cheat, or steal, and accept that the consequence for breaking this pledge is permanent dismissal from the University.” The school’s website indicates that this has led to what they call the “Community of Trust.”

Is an honor code still relevant?

Gary Pavela, a past-President of the International Center for Academic Integrity and co-founder of the Academic Integrity Seminar, believes that the concept of an honor code is more relevant today than ever. He cites Harvard’s decade of deliberation and eventual adoption of a modified honor code as a sign that honor codes are here to stay. But unlike those of past centuries, he says today’s codes are more of a partnership between students, faculty and staff; one that he believes “is more likely to be what honor codes of the future look like.”

Harvard’s adoption of its honor code in 2013 followed a cheating scandal which prompted then-president Drew Faust to question:

“How do we sustain the most constructive culture possible for learning? How do we—we who have devoted our lives to scholarship and teaching—how do we affirm and transmit the value—and the excitement—of learning for its own sake to our students?”

Pavela says, “The modified honor code clearly and directly promotes a collaboration and cooperation between students and faculty that almost certainly would not exist otherwise. What you have otherwise is an ‘us versus them’ climate where the faculty try to police it, and detect it, and punish it, and the students try to get away with it. And that’s a pretty deadly dynamic.

Honor codes are different from academic honesty policies

“An academic integrity policy without any kind of an honor code is very much a top-down process,” says Pavela. He explains that when an administration develops, implements, and enforces policy, “there’s not much of a message beyond: We are the administration, we are going to prohibit this and try to catch you and punish you.”

It is naïve to believe that an honor code will prevent all cheating, but studies have repeatedly shown that rates of cheating are lower at schools that have an honor code. The late Don McCabe, a researcher often referred to as the “founding father” of academic integrity research, said that fact may have more to do with the schools than the students. In a 1996 interview, he said, “just having an honor code is not the answer. It has to be a living part of the culture and the environment to be effective.”

When there are alleged honor code violations, students are involved in the judicial proceedings. At some institutions (such as UVA, Haverford, William & Mary), a student-only judicial board hears cases; others rely on a student/faculty board. Penalties vary, and can include censure, community service, failing grades, suspension or even expulsion.

Honor codes do more than reduce cheating

Pavela says that honor codes change the dynamic at an institution. “You have a collaboration, sometimes daily, between student leaders and faculty about what academic honesty entails, how to prevent it, how to resolve it. They’re talking to each other. You get ideas and insights from students as to what some of the key problems are.”

Another powerful element, he says, is peer influence. “When you have student leaders actually resolving cases, being given a position of responsibility, it’s inevitable that they talk to their peers about it. They’re very strict about not invading confidentiality, but they talk generally about what the rules are, how other students are held accountable. They’re asked as individuals or as a committee to appear at faculty meetings or at department meetings.”

Pavela says the students who sit on an honor committee may find they benefit even more. “They are learning to work together, collaborate and do something important together,” he says. In turn, this can benefit society as a whole. He points out, “We are training a cadre of leadership in the realm of applied ethics, people who go into business and industry talking about trust and integrity.”

Clarify what constitutes academic dishonesty

It may seem obvious, but students need to know what constitutes academic dishonesty. In today’s world of instant online material, some students may not understand the line between using resources and cheating. Institutions can help by clearly outlining policies and expectations.

Detailed explanations of plagiarism (both intentional and unintentional) such as that presented in tutorials by Georgetown University (required of all new students) or Duke University can help students understand when and how to ethically research and credit sources. Rutgers’ extensive website on Academic Integrity not only details the school’s code but also includes pages of information for both students and instructors.

Make the honor code part of daily life

Respect and trust should be key values on campus. Professors can help by including honor code information on all syllabi and talking about academic integrity in the classroom. Schools can reinforce this by making sure honor code information is displayed prominently on the website and by installing plaques with the honor code throughout campus (some schools install these plaques in every classroom). Talk about the code outside of classes and bring in ethics experts to speak on campus.

Require students to sign affidavits on their work that states they have not cheated or (in cases where it is allowed) that indicate they received help from [person’s name]. Present this not in a punitive way, but as a renewal of a commitment. Emphasize learning outcomes rather than grades.

Make it easy to be honest

Haverford College’s lengthy code details expectations and also includes advice:

“In moments where they struggle with their academics due to distressing experiences, students should be in as much communication as possible with professors in order to avoid breaches.”

Here the code addresses not only academics but also social and community standards and expectations when one witnesses an infraction. The school also sees violations as teaching opportunities; abstracts of trials (with pseudonyms) may be published to initiate a dialogue or students may write public apologies. “The goals of Honor Council proceedings are threefold: to hold any individual who violated the Code accountable, to educate the individuals involved, and to restore individuals who violated the Code to the Haverford community

Hamilton College’s student code of conduct not only calls for directly addressing another student who may be in violation of the code but also working to prevent such violations, for example,  “during an in-class exam, tapping a pencil on a desk to remind other students of their obligations.”

Make students part of the process

A student editorial in the Middlebury Campus provides one reason honor codes fail: “We almost never hear about it after first-year orientation … Our entire community, administration, professors, and students alike, are not invested enough in the honor code. As with anything else, if we want the honor code to succeed, we need to invest in it. It is easy enough to say cheating will always be a problem. The challenge is to create a culture that rejects it.”

Create a ceremony for new students to learn about and commit to the honor code, perhaps reinforced by a signing ceremony. Make this ceremony a priority; don’t schedule competing events for the same time.

At Washington & Lee University, students decide what the honor code is; it changes with the times. “Each new generation of students defines the Honor System by its actions and the behavior it deems dishonorable. At Washington and Lee, dishonorable conduct is not codified; rather, the Honor System is based upon the principle that any action deemed a breach of the community’s trust will be considered an Honor Violation.” There is only one penalty: expulsion.

A culture of trust

One hallmark of honor code schools, non-proctored exams, conveys the idea that students are trustworthy. Some schools, such as Washington and Lee, take this a step further and allow students to take exams in the library or even off campus. When an honor code becomes a way of life, students report more trust. It is not uncommon for students at some of these schools to leave their belongings (including valuable items such as laptops) out in the open for extended times, safe in the knowledge they will be there when they return.

According to Pavela, an atmosphere of trust and communication, where students actively participate in making the rules, is what makes an honor code work. He adds, “An honor committee is an institutionalized feedback mechanism for the administration [and] faculty about how we should define and respond to academic dishonesty. It’s not a terribly radical idea,” he adds, pointing out that most large industries have mechanisms for workers to provide feedback to management “to build trust, confidence and influence between employees and administration.”

About the author

Kimberly Yavorski is a freelance writer who loves finding answers to obscure questions. She has always been a reader and believes that there is always something new to discover and learn, if we only take the time to look. She believes that we all can and should be part of the solution by contributing in whatever way we can. Her writing covers topics such as parenting, education, history, science, social issues and travel.

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