Honoring the Honor Code

By Middlebury Campus

With the review of the College’s Honor Code, which this year includes the Community Forum held this past Monday, March 11 and the forthcoming creation of the Honor Code Student Committee, it is important to take time to assess the effectiveness of the code itself, both in theory and in practice. As noted in the preamble to the Constitution of the Undergraduate Honor System, Middlebury students form a “community of individuals that values academic integrity as a way of life” and thus are deemed capable of holding themselves and their peers accountable to the Honor Code’s high standards intended to prevent cheating. Unfortunately, the admirable ambitions of the Honor Code do not always translate into its adherence in the classroom.

In practice, the self-proctoring of exams by students appears to be problematic; while a majority of students may not explicitly cheat in this context, an overarching attitude exists that facilitates the ability of some students to get away with cheating with little fear of repercussion. In a community of individuals supposedly committed to honoring academic integrity, why do students fail to report incidents of cheating? The most apparent explanation is that under the current system, there is little incentive to hold others accountable.

A variety of factors account for this lack of enforcement. Reporting an incident of cheating can be a traumatic experience for both the accused and accuser. As each student has a right to hear all charges being brought against him or herself, those who report cheating must confront the accused, face-to-face in the hearing overseen by the Academic Judicial Board. Given the close-knit nature of the Middlebury community, it is understandable why students may feel uncomfortable bringing up charges against a fellow student, likely a friend or acquaintance. Thus, while the small community feel of the College is supposed to strengthen adherence to the Honor Code, it acts as a double-edged sword. Additionally, though students who are accused of cheating face extremely high costs (including possible expulsion if found guilty), those who report cheating receive little benefit from doing so besides the moral satisfaction of maintaining the College’s academic integrity. Given this imbalance, students have little motivation to report incidents of cheating among their peers.

Students, faculty and administrators should consider different methods of addressing this issue as they review the Honor Code. First, the Honor Code itself should be highlighted more prominently throughout students’ entire academic careers here, rather than just mentioned during first-year orientation and at the beginning of the semester in some classes. Second, serious thought should be given to reforming the process through which students report cheating; students should not be dissuaded from doing so for fear of an overly stressful experience. Finally, though testing methods differ across various academic departments, simple changes may be implemented in all courses to help decrease the probability of cheating. Requiring students to place all electronic devices at the front of the room before the exam begins, for example, may force students to think more seriously about their actions and dissuade them from cheating.

We are not advocating for changes to the Honor Code that promote a classroom environment in which students feel they must police their peers. Students’ ability to self-proctor their exams is a key feature of our academic life here, and one of which we are proud. Similarly, it is impractical and unfair to require professors to babysit students in long exams. What must change, however, is the general attitude embedded within the student culture that maintains that cheating is okay, or, at minimum, is “not my problem.” Students must understand that they implicitly endorse cheating by not taking a stand against it; each time cheating occurs and each time it goes unreported, the academic integrity of the College as an educational institution is compromised. Though the Honor Code explicitly states that any member of the College community who is “aware of a case of academic dishonesty is morally obligated to report it to the professor or the Judicial Affairs Officer,” this language is fairly ambiguous and offers no mechanism for enforcement. In an academic environment of trust and mutual respect, the moral obligation of students to not cheat in the first place must be as strong as the moral obligation of others to report violations of the Honor Code.

Undoubtedly, our reactions to the Honor Code directly reflect our views of cheating. Is cheating really that big of a deal? The answer is yes. Though students face a variety of external pressures to achieve a certain GPA, we ourselves have the power to make the right decisions each time we step into an exam or submit an assignment. Though some may view the act of cheating as a personal choice, it has implications on the entire college community. While looking over someone’s shoulder during an exam may positively impact your grade one time, it negatively impacts the academic experience of others around you and diminishes the College’s academic standing. In reality, the true value of the Honor Code is as good as our respect for it, and we can do better than the status quo.