Cheating Taints the Honor Code

By Kyle Finck

Four years ago, 35.5 percent of students reported cheating at least once. Ninety-seven percent of students who saw infractions did not report it. With few signs of improvement since 2009, it is clear that cheating, nonexistent peer proctoring and student apathy are still sickening the honor code, putting its long term health in danger.

The Honor Code Review Committee — two faculty members, two students and one member from Dean of the College’s office — is currently gauging the health of the code as they do every four years. The final report is due for release at the end of April.

Touted by tour guides to prospective students and signed by every incoming first-year, the academic honor code is designed to be the foundation behind the integrity of student work.

The most salient feature of the code is peer tutoring, in which both students who cheat and their peers who witness it are “morally obligated” to report the infractions, according to article three of the code.

But the strong data conducted during the last honor code review point to a fundamental problem undermining the code’s strength and effectiveness at the College: students are cheating, but neither faculty nor students themselves are willing to hold them to account. Numerous conversations with students, faculty and administrators have called into question whether  the honor code can survive the status quo.

 

A STINGING REBUKE

This year’s review follows the committee’s contentious conclusions it arrived at the last time it was convened, four years ago. The headline recommendation was to remove language restricting faculty members from being present during exams, essentially killing the most visible feature of honor code.

Dean for Judicial Affairs Karen Guttentag described the privilege of taking un-proctored exams as a three-point agreement between faculty and students.

“The faculty agree not to proctor in exchange for students not cheating and proctoring each other,” said Guttentag, who served on the 2009 council and is heading this year’s review. “If one piece of that is missing, it doesn’t work.”

“We concluded [in 2009] that to a certain extent, neither of the student responsibilities were being help up. We could not in good faith continue this process.”

The recommendation was largely driven by a study conducted in the spring of 2008 by a student in the Economics of Sin, a 400-level class taught by Associate Professor of Economics Jessica Holmes.

Of the 484 students who responded, 35.5 percent admitted giving or receiving unauthorized aid on exams, papers, labs or homework some time during their four years at the College, according to data provided by Holmes.

Among the students who reported violating the honor code, 33 percent reported breaking it more than once a semester.

Student responses to questions on peer proctoring revealed that 63 percent of students witnessed violations more than once a semester. But only three percent of those who witnessed cheating actually reported the violation.

When asked why they did not report the violations, the most common responses were “not my problem/none of my business,” “do not want to be a rat or snitch,” and “so many students do it that it is unfair to single a few out or it would be hypocritical of me.”

“Of course I was dismayed but sadly, not surprised,” wrote Holmes — who served on the 2009 committee — via email. “I am in favor of having an honor code, but I don’t think the current honor code is effective (at least not for exams).”

Holmes expressed that if she served on this year’s committee, she would re-consider making “faculty presence” the default.

“Faculty can elect not to proctor exams if they so choose, but by changing the default, you remove the transaction cost associated with getting special permission to proctor,” she wrote. “This should increase proctoring which would better ensure the academic integrity of the exam environment.”

 

WHY NOBODY REPORTS CHEATING 

Reporting honor code infractions can be a stressful process for both students and faculty. Students who report cheating must go in front of the Academic Judicial Board and face the person they have accused, which has become a challenging deterrent in a such a small community.

“There’s no carrot besides feeling good about your personal integrity, which is important, but hard to institutionalize,” said Bree Baccaglini ’15.5.

Professor of Mathematics Steve Abbott said he understands student trepidation with reporting their peers.

“It takes an emotional toll, there’s no way around that,” he said. “But if a student were to bring a case forward, their responsibility would only be to tell what they know. They don’t have to be a trial lawyer — it really is the system’s job.”

Abbott called the low peer reporting numbers “potentially scary,” and raised the possibility of changing the language in the code to make failing to report a peer cheating an actual violation in itself — similar to criminal complicity laws — instead of a moral infraction.

“If it became a violation for you not to say what you knew, it might be easier for people to report their peers,” he said.

Abbott said that the focus on enforcing the honor code across the faculty is “uneven.”

“There are instances of faculty members handling cases on their own and their reasoning is that their perceived impressions of the judicial process are unpleasant and inefficient and that the system doesn’t work,” he said. “But people who go through the process say it is fair, reasonable and difficult, but that it fundamentally works.”

Abbott chose to go through the Judicial Affairs Committee for all of the infractions he encountered and endorsed it wholeheartedly.

“In every case, things have gone in a positive way,” he said. “It has relieved me of having to be judge and jury.”

Holmes uses her experiences going through the Academic Judicial Board as a reminder to her students of the consequences of cheating.

“I also remind my classes that I have brought several students before the Judicial Academic Judicial Board for cheating and plagiarism over the years, and while it is not a pleasant experience for me, it is something I will do to uphold my responsibility. I warn them [cheating] is just not worth it.”

 

MAKING UP FOR PAST SGA BLUNDERS

The recommendation to strike the no proctoring clause was never implemented because of strong opposition from the Student Government Association (SGA), who asserted it would not pass the two-thirds student vote needed to make structural changes to the code. This led SGA, Faculty Council and Community Council members to hash out the current language of the code.

“I think both the faculty and the students came away from those meetings thinking they had won, which in essence is the perfect agreement,” said Guttentag.

A major aspect of the agreement was the establishment of a new cabinet post in the SGA dedicated to chairing the Academic Honesty Committee. Aseem Mulji ’11.5 was put in charge of the committee, according to faculty meeting minutes from May 13, 2009.

“He explained their goal to make the honor code more visible, and provide broader discussion of philosophical and practice issues,” read the notes. “Mr. Mulji stressed that students still care about the honor code and are committed to making it work.”

But the Academic Honesty Committee never materialized.

“It needs to be acknowledged that last time, promises were made that did not happen, but I’m hopeful that something really positive can come out of that,” said Guttentag, who praised this year’s SGA leadership. “There is no way that this can be entirely on the faculty and administration. Students need to take on shared responsibility.”

Current SGA President Charlie Arnowitz ’13 is trying to hold up the students’ end of the bargain. While he pointed out that the yearly turnover within the SGA results in promises easily falling through the cracks from one administration to another, he made no excuses for the 2009 SGA blunders.

“We’re going to do what wasn’t done in 2009, and do it better,” he said.

The result would be the Honor Code Student Committee, which Arnowitz is helping to create before he leaves office and will transition responsibilities to his successor.

Arnowitz said the goals of the committee would be to solicit student participation, conduct research on best practices at peer institutions with honor codes and find ways to involve the code into the broader student culture at the College.

“This is totally student driven,” he said. “We need to inculcate the honor code into everyday student life. One hard question we will have to answer is whether an honor code is worth it.”

Arnowitz said he had already received “a lot” of applications for the committee. But the SGA is fighting a pitched battle against what some see as student apathy about the future of the honor code.

On March 7, the SGA sent out an all-student email inviting students to attend a “community forum” surrounding the honor code with Collado, Guttentag and members of the SGA. But when the night came, only two students showed up — the Campus had three people covering the event.

While Arnowitz blamed the low turnout mainly on the remoteness of the Atwater location, he acknowledged the low turn out was “a little troubling.”

Failings on the part of the student body to uphold its end of the honor code — abysmal peer reporting, general student apathy and past SGA blunders — have led some faculty to question whether the honor code is nothing more than a first-year signature.

“I think students themselves have to decide if they want a strong honor code on campus — if so, then they should look for ways to create a student community that is not tolerant of cheating,” wrote Holmes in her email. “Perhaps students are content with current levels of cheating and enforcement?”

“I don’t think that’s the case, but maybe things have changed,” said Arnowitz, sighing. “It’s key to make sure students know what is at stake here.”

One of the main goals of the Honor Code Student Committee will be to show faculty and administrators that things have changed since 2009, according to Arnowitz.

Jackie Yordan ’13, who is serving on the Academic Judicial Board and the Honor Code Review Committee, said the key is to get students talking more about the code. She pointed to the It Happens Here campaign to promote awareness of sexual assault as a roadmap.

“We need to make the honor code as talked about as we have made the issue of sexual assault this year,” said Yordan. “We want the changes to come from students.”

The level of value placed on the honor code runs the gamut depending on the student.

“Having students take responsibility for their work is huge, because if you don’t take responsibility now in college, then why will you take responsibility for your work at any time subsequent?” said Ian Thomas ’13.5, who is on the Academic Judicial Board. “This is your last real opportunity to learn it.”

Baccaglini said that after First-Year Orientation, there isn’t enough follow up.

“I’ll run into tour guides in McCullough saying, ‘This is one of the hallmarks of Middlebury,’ and I’ll walk away saying, ‘Maybe it is, but I don’t know,’” she said. “Theoretically, students take it as an indication of trust from professors, but I’m hesitant to say students really care about it. Who here wakes up every day saying, ‘I’m so glad I go to a school with an honor code!’ Nobody.”

But Baccaglini said that both students and the College have a long-term interest in the code.

“I think Middlebury has an investment in keeping [the honor code] and that students, at least on an abstract level, do as well,” she said. “Every time I sign a test, I’m not bathed in the light of honor, but I think that students feel it’s a valuable part of our experience.”

 

POISONING THE WELL OF TRUST

Guttentag said that one of her primary goals this time around is to elucidate what she called “the real tangible costs of my cheating on you.” One tangible result is the loss of some faculty members’ trust in students.

“Many students assume that because of the honor code, professors have to inherently trust them,” said Guttentag. “But that’s not the way trust works.”

Abbott, the math professor who serves on the Honor Code Review Committee, was tapped to serve on the current committee because of what he described as “my unusually high number of encounters with [Guttentag] in the last two or three years.”

He estimated that he has had to bring five accusations of cheating to the judicial board over the past two or three years. While Abbott stressed that his experiences are not the norm among his colleagues, he acknowledged that the infractions have changed the way he grades.

“I do now approach grading in a mindset that’s more suspicious than I used to be,” he said. “And it doesn’t feel good.

“I have had experiences where I will see a solution by a student that surprised me in its elegance and ingenuity and the natural reaction to that as a professor is a sense of elation at the success of the student. Now that has to be filtered through a lens of, ‘Is this a real event based on this person arriving at a point of insight or did something improper happen to produce it?’”

Abbott is also attacking the notion some people at the College hold that cheaters are “only hurting themselves.”

“The freedom to think up the best possible assignment is dependent on the honor code working in some kind of robust way,” he said. “When you get out of that mode and start second-guessing whether or not the student’s approach to an assignment is an honest one, then you’ve given up something. Everybody loses.”

While Abbott is concerned about the vitality of the code, he repeatedly stressed his optimism in a bright future.

“Have I lost the rose-colored glasses? Yeah. But I don’t think we’re in a crisis. […] I haven’t gotten the feeling that we’re on some precipice.”

 

CHANGING PEDAGOGY

The affect cheating has had on faculty already depends greatly on whom you talk with. But even the most ardent faculty supporters of the honor code said they’ve changed their pedagogy in response to cheating.

“I’ve been a supporter of the honor code for decades,” said Charles A. Dana Professor of Mathematics John Emerson. “I’m happy to say that it’s been a very long time since I’ve had a plagiarizing issue with my students.”

Emerson’s perspectives come from a long involvement with the code, including stints as the chair of the Judicial Review Board and as the head of the Academic Judicial Board in the past. He said the effectiveness of the code can be enhanced by drawing attention to the importance of the Middlebury Honor System.

“It can be very constructive for any faculty member to take a few minutes at the beginning of a course to explain the relevance of the honor code as it applies to a particular course,” he said.

While Emerson always advises students that he will return to the classroom halfway through exams to respond to questions or provide clarification, he does not support making proctoring exams the default.

“Proctoring would change the psychology of the classroom,” he said. “My concern is that you don’t want to create a game where students try to cheat by outsmarting the teachers.”

Despite his unwavering support for the honor code, Emerson said that over the years he has adjusted his pedagogy by limiting the use of take-home exams.

“The reason I don’t offer take-home exams is because good people who care about honesty can still cheat if they are under enough pressure,” he said. “You get sick or you have a fight with your girlfriend and you still need to take that exam tomorrow and you are distracted and you panic.”

All of the faculty members interviewed recognized the immense pressure many of their students were under to perform at high levels and the importance of limiting situations where students might be tempted to cheat.

For example, Abbott refuses to give self-scheduled exams for multi-sectional calculus because of what he called math’s “ability to produce anxiety.”

But Guttentag said that even professors accounting for these situations is a cost of cheating.

“Instead of faculty saying, ‘What is the most engaging, creative way I can teach this material?’ they have to say, ‘How can I create a cheat-proof exam?’” she said. “You’re not getting the best pedagogy from your professors.”

 

IS PROCTORING THE ONLY ANSWER?

The answer — almost unequivocally — is no. For now.

“I don’t want to support a shift in the climate that surrounds an honor system,” said Emerson, who proctored students during his graduate years at Cornell University. “That was definitely a more negative climate than is the case here at Middlebury in my classroom when my students are taking tests. I treat students with respect and I think they know intuitively that I don’t assume that they want to cheat.”

Abbott said that while the code isn’t functioning at the highest level, restricting it would only make things worse.

“It really boils down to a sense that the honor code gets stronger when it’s put to use,” he said. “The best way to infuse it with meaning is to continue to invoke it by not proctoring. I think we’re better putting it to use than restricting it due to abuse.”

Administrators, faculty and students all agreed that dismantling the academic honor code would have negative consequences.

“Quite a bit would be lost without an academic honor code,” said Joseph Flaherty ’15. “You would lose the contract between students and faculty that says, ‘We’re going to treat our academic work with honesty and integrity.’”

“The culture would suffer for it,” said Guttentag. “I think the majority of students are behaving honorably and that the honor code is a point of pride for them.”

She said the administration is wary of creating a police state pitting students versus the administration.

“That’s not the kind of culture we want to have here and the relationships we hope to foster,” she said.

But at the end of the day, the health and fate of the honor code will rest with the students, something Arnowitz is acutely aware of.

“If the faculty and administration see students really making an honest effort in a way that is going to concretely continue next year, we will buy ourselves a couple years,” said Arnowitz. “But that by no means ensures that when I come back for a reunion in five years, the honor code will still be here.”

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


1 Comment

One Response to “Cheating Taints the Honor Code”

  1. al-Mu3atazili on April 12th, 2013 7:55 am

    Proctoring isn’t the only answer. Take the lead of schools with a real honor code, like the military academies. If you are aware of honor code violations and you fail to report them within a reasonable time frame – say, 48 hours – than you are also guilty of violating the honor code. Enact this policy and enforce it.




Middlebury College's only student-run newspaper.
Cheating Taints the Honor Code