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The Academic Honor Code in Crisis

Over the past couple of years, there has been a significant rise in the number of academic trials at Haverford.  Given the level of trust afforded by professors to students in our system, it stands to reason that these cases represent a small of portion of the academic dishonesty that actually occurs here. This reality is not one we should be willing to tolerate.

In her column that recently appeared in the New York Times, Middlebury student Jessica Cheung cites a survey of other Middlebury students in which 35% of respondents admitted to having committed or been complicit in an act of cheating. If the incidence of academic dishonesty at Haverford is even one quarter of that indicated by the Middlebury survey, I think that the term “crisis” is easily warranted. Think about it: this would mean that about 100 of the 1,200 students at Haverford cheats every year. The extent to which this supposed cheating discredits honest students and cheapens their degrees is nothing short of appalling.

I think many Haverford students consider their campus exceptional.  Unlike the students of, say, Middlebury, we take our honor code seriously and are virtually all honest students. Although the common thought that we, as Haverford students, are exceptional is not entirely incorrect, I am sure that the students of Middlebury think of themselves (also not entirely incorrectly) in much the same manner. Belief in the code as belief in the principles underlying the honor code is a good thing. Belief in the code as dogmatic faith in its effectiveness is not.

If I am right in referring to this situation as a crisis, then it calls for more than idle internet think-pieces; it calls for action. With this in mind, I’d like to put forward two suggestions for actions that we (or at least some students) may immediately take, with an eye towards saving the code.

First, juries need to separate students from the community more frequently.  In reading some of the recently released abstracts, I was dismayed to learn of several cases in which the infraction was quite egregious and clear-cut, but the confronted student was not separated. The reason in most of these cases was that the student had taken responsibility for his or her infraction and that trust had been restored between the professor and the student. Therefore, the accountability, education, and restoration that the trial aimed for had been achieved, and a separation would not have been necessary. After all, trials are not supposed to be adversarial, so the resolutions that the jury decides on—or so the thinking goes—are not supposed to be punitive.

This justification for not separating students is not right because the notion that resolutions cannot be punitive is untenable.  While resolutions should not be used to exact vengeance on a student, punishments may serve as deterrence rather than vengeance.  A system that eschews all punishment incentivizes anyone who is inclined (and we know that some Haverford students are) to break the rules to do so. If a student is inclined to cheat, and they know that, if caught, they will have to do no more than express contrition and write a letter to the community, then they will cheat. This is not cynicism. It is a sober analysis of the incentive system juries create by being loath to separate.

Some may object that if we commit to separating students guilty of academic violations, we have abandoned the ethic of trust, concern, and respect that the code undergirds, replacing it with a traditional dynamic of crime and punishment. I do not think this is so. We can still talk and think about the code and its role in the community the same way we do now, while at the same time being less willing to tolerate its violation.

Concerns about incentives and the Haverfordian ethic aside, it’s in the very Students’ Constitution that the normal consequence of cheating should be separation.

Second, I do not think that future academic trials should remain anonymous. One of the chief aims of a trial is accountability. You are accountable to another for your behavior when you are forthright about what that behavior was and are willing to accept its consequences.  It is obvious, based on this notion of accountability, that you cannot be directly accountable to the community if you are anonymous.

My friend and teammate, Ben Cutilli ’13 understood this. That is why he broke his confidentiality in his letter apologizing to the community for cheating on exams throughout his time at Haverford.  In my opinion, the restoration of his relationship with the community was far more complete because he did so.

What, then does accountability even mean in the context of an anonymous trial? At a recent event, “Pizza, Professors, and the Code,” Professor Barak Mendelsohn gave the following interpretation of this concept: although the confronted party cannot be directly accountable to the community, they may be directly accountable to the jury. The jury, then, serves as a proxy for the community. Is is thought that when the jury takes the confronted to be restored, the community as a whole should, too.

However, Mendelsohn elaborated that this system only allows for accountability to the community insofar as juries are effective and trustworthy proxies. It seems clear to me that this is not always the case. An academic infraction violates all of us.  Whenever a professor or student feels that a trial’s resolutions do not go far enough, or that a confronted party’s letter to the community is just a disingenuous collection of platitudes, that professor or student remains violated; they have not been made whole.  It is up to each individual what is necessary to make him whole.  Ten jurors cannot possibly bear the standard for the whole community.

There’s been a lot of recent discussion about the social code, as it affects or fails to affect social justice. However, there’s been surprisingly little said about the intellectual injustice that every honest student at Haverford is facing. My assertion is simply this: that this intellectual injustice is of equal gravity, and ought to be addressed with the same sense of urgency.

The idea behind the Honor Code is that the code’s appeal to students’ natural inclinations towards honesty and respect can by itself enact an environment of academic honesty.  It is a beautiful idea, but the code cannot be justified in principle alone. The code can only be vindicated if it actually affects its aims in practice.

Editor’s Note: The sentence “35% of respondents admitted to having cheated in the past academic year” was changed to “35% of respondents admitted to having committed or been complicit in an act of cheating.”