Maintaining Integrity: Honor codes across America


The difference between administration-enforced rules and honor codes – which usually involve students holding each other accountable for following rules – is like the difference between high school and college.  In high school, there’s no chance to escape your teachers’ surveillance. (Notebook checks, anyone?)  If you don’t hand in an assignment, you get an F. If you cut class, you don’t just miss the material—you go to detention.

College isn’t so much like day care. You’re responsible for figuring out and doing what’s necessary to succeed academically.  A couple of big papers or tests, rather than daily assignments, determine your grade in a semester-long course. And if you miss class, you don’t get sent to The Tank – but you might not ace the exam.

Honor codes—sets of rules that apply to academic and, at some schools, social life—represent the self-governing college mindset. Students are supposed to both follow these rules and report breaches of the code, often to student-governed boards. This is a pairing of freedom and responsibility.  Students sign a pledge that they’ll follow the code; doing so means they’re free to operate independently and honestly.  But if they break the code, they have to answer to their peers.

Some honor codes—like Middlebury College’s, Princeton University’s, and Wesleyan University’s—focus only on academics. Middlebury’s, for example, targets plagiarism and cheating on tests. Exams aren’t proctored unless an instructor has “a reasonable suspicion that there are students cheating,” according to the website. Students agree before they enroll to uphold the honor system, which requires them to report both their own and other students’ academic dishonesty to the Academic Judicial Board.  The Judicial Board, composed entirely of Middlebury students, holds hearings for students accused of infractions and, most often, suspends students it finds guilty. Every four years, two faculty members, two students, and a Dean of the College Office member meet to revise the honor system.

“Middlebury does not have a written Social Honor Code, as some colleges do. I’d like to see us have one. I don’t see any direct effects on social life of the current code,” Will Bellaimey ‘10 wrote in an e-mail. “I don’t think it affects me personally in a tangible way. I didn’t cheat before and I wouldn’t now, regardless of the code. If it does prevent the rampant cheating that my friends at big state schools report, I am grateful. But I think the kids who would cheat there still cheat here. There are just fewer of them.”

At other schools, like Brigham Young University, Davidson College, Harvey Mudd College, Haverford College, and Reed College, honor codes extend to all aspects of campus life, including social conduct. Haverford, for example, emphasizes both academic and social self-governance. Students take tests without proctors and schedule their own exams within a seven-day period. The Honor Code also demands “mutual respect and concern” in discussion and writing, and encourages “face to face confrontation” in the case of a breach. The Honor Council—like Middlebury’s Judicial Board—is composed entirely of students and decides by consensus whether a situation can be resolved informally or warrants a trial.
Greg Kannerstein—the Dean of the College, who graduated from Haverford in 1963—feels the Honor Code results in not only academic and social integrity, but also a positive campus environment.

“Academically, it’s striking. There are never proctors or monitors on an exam,” he said. He added that self-scheduled exams allow students to take tests only when they feel they’re prepared. “The exam period is so much more relaxed and positive and we think students do a lot better,” he said.

According to Kannerstein, the Honor Council rarely holds trials for social breaches—students tend to resolve disputes on their own, through confrontation. “Confrontation sounds like some angry challenge and it really isn’t,” he said. “You have two responsibilities: You have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and if you’re bothered by what they’ve done, you have to go talk to them.”

“Academically, and socially, it makes things much more free,” Jeff Wildermuth ’09 wrote in an e-mail. “When taking tests, the teacher will often leave the room—it’s nice to have teachers trust the students and assume that we are not going to cheat. During semester exams, we are allowed to take them in a number of different rooms on our own time, which, in my opinion, is far more relaxing to be able to ‘do your own thing.’ If you’re alone in an exam room and you’re trying to think, you don’t feel embarrassed about pacing around the room or something like that. Socially, it’s nice to live in an environment when you feel safe all the time. Safe in that you know nobody’s going to steal from you or hurt you or anything like that, but also that it’s safe to be yourself and to try new things. The honor code is a big part of this sort of safety because people are able to be open with each other. If someone is offended by something, they’ll tell you, and in most cases, people become better friends because of the honesty rather than being hurt by it.”

Why has Haverford’s Honor Code been so successful? Kannerstein thinks it’s a combination of its responsiveness to the times (since it’s updated annually) and the flexible range of resolutions to cases. Whereas some schools suspend or expel students who breach the code, “nothing’s off-limits” at Haverford: The Honor Council can craft the response it feels is appropriate for each case. “It could mean writing a letter to the community, it could mean public service, it could mean writing something else for the course,” Kannerstein said.

Students are not always as observant of their schools’ honor codes. At Reed, for example, students adhere to the honor principle’s academic tenets, but while the social mandates have fostered community, the drug culture can get out of hand.

“The honor principle has had amazing results at Reed academically, but less amazing results socially,” Erin Smith ‘09 wrote in an e-mail. “Although the honor principle has led to a tolerant and easygoing atmosphere socially, in my opinion is has also led to a somewhat overly apathetic atmosphere, especially concerning drugs. A Reedie will turn a blind eye to extreme drug use and deviant behavior where others might report it.”

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