Deciphering the Code
A century after it took effect — and with academic cheating a growing temptation — the Honor Code is still alive and well
By Alexandra Orlov ’13
Hamilton College marks the centennial of its Honor Code at a revealing historical moment: This fall, students on the Hill once again pledged by their signatures to uphold the standards of academic integrity that their predecessors first embraced — with some reluctance — in 1912. As they did, the nation’s most prestigious university and one of its most highly regarded high schools were mired in cheating scandals.
In Cambridge, Mass., where 125 Harvard undergraduates were accused of sharing and plagiarizing answers on a spring take-home exam in an introductory government course, The Boston Globe warned that “a college education has become a transaction: a means of earning a degree for your résumé, rather than a place to explore the life of the mind.” In New York City, where about 70 juniors at Stuyvesant High School were implicated in a cell-phone cheating ring on at least one exam, some students compounded the crime by rationalizing it. “It’s seen as helping your friend out,” one student told The New York Times. “If you ask people, they’d say it’s not cheating. I have your back, you have mine.”
Those incidents, and the responses to them, hint at the depth and complexity of the threats to academic integrity in the 21st century. It’s no longer just weaker students trying to get by who resort to unethical acts; egregious cheating scandals occur at even the most selective schools, among the best and brightest. The pressure for top-tier grades is mounting in a world where the “gentleman’s C” is an anachronism and competition for the best jobs can be cutthroat. Digital devices offer unprecedented opportunities to access and share information, from cut-and-paste plagiarism on papers to the instant dissemination of exam answers via smart phone. And finally, there is the willingness to rationalize bad behavior as a form of group loyalty.
The latter, of course, is nothing new. It was, in fact, just such a mindset that Hamilton’s Honor Code (see “Beginnings,” this page) had to overcome a century ago, at a time when many observers reported widespread dishonesty. “The cheating here was terrific,” legendary professor Robert “Bobo” Rudd, Class of 1909, would recall of his undergraduate years in a Class & Charter Day speech. But in the 21st century, new technology and the relentless pressure created by rising expectations lead many to believe that the opportunities — and the temptations — to stray are greater than ever.
Inevitably, then, some wonder if Hamilton’s Honor Code and others like it remain effective: Have the changes of the past 100 years weakened students’ dedication to the Honor Code? Is such a code still the best way to promote academic integrity? The traditional power of the code not only to ensure fair play but also to shape lives was eloquently outlined by John Schoemer, Jr. ’35 in his Half-Century Annalist Letter, delivered in 1985, and thousands of other alumni and alumnae have echoed his sentiments in letters, conversations and reunion yearbook reminiscences. “I came to Clinton from a city school where monitors prowled the aisles during every examination, and it was considered fair game to try to outwit them,” he wrote:
Being suddenly placed on my honor was for me a stunning experience. I consider that the Honor Code at Hamilton profoundly affected both my social and my professional life.… Finding we would be trusted if we said that the work was our own, or that we would bring the book back to the library, developed an abiding distaste for deception and falsehood that has influenced our dealings with others throughout our lives.
Does academic honesty really matter today, in the way that it mattered to alumni such as Schoemer, Rudd and countless others?
Beginnings: The Honor Code
The origin of the Honor Code, which took full effect 100 years ago this fall, is closely but coincidentally tied to another grand Hamilton tradition, study abroad — particularly in France. Though the Junior Year in France would not become an institutional reality until 1957, it was the spring of 1908 when R. Hawley “Ravvy” Truax, Class of 1909, pioneered the trans-Atlantic odyssey to Paris; he is believed to have been the first Hamiltonian to study abroad. A year later, he would graduate as the valedictorian of one of Hamilton’s most illustrious classes — “a spent roué who finds satisfaction in writing sensual verse,” as the 1909 Hamiltonian put it, though apart from his very real penchant for poetry, the description was probably intended as a playful poke at Truax’s francophilia, not as a snapshot of his decidedly industrious personality.
On the steamer home from Europe, Truax had struck up a friendship with students from Princeton and Brown, he recalled in a 1977 letter to Dean “Lawry” Gulick ’52. They discussed Princeton’s academic code of conduct, and Truax was immediately inspired: “I was so full of the subject that, arriving on the Hill a day or so before the opening of the College [in fall 1908], I spent most of the day and night conceiving, and writing out, an honor system.”
He understood from the beginning that it would not be an easy sell; “even the idea of an honor system was unknown on the Hill,” and scandalous breaches of conduct during examinations were common at the time. “I think I thought of [the original draft] chiefly as an opening wedge,” he told College historian Walter Pilkington in 1957, but “by dint of considerable talking during my senior year, a few students and some faculty members became seriously interested in the possibility.”
But how to turn that possibility into reality? An Honor Code by decree would never work, Truax knew; it needed broad acceptance by students in an open vote. The votes, however, were not yet there. It was necessary not only to campaign for a new policy but to inspire a new attitude, to create a sense that change was inevitable. The breakthrough idea came from Truax’s classmate and Sigma Phi brother, Alexander Osborn (see “The Man Who Taught Brains to Storm,” Summer 2012) — to have the Honor Code voted on class by class rather than risking an up-or-down vote by the entire student population. “We had gravest doubts that the [entire] College body would accept it,” Truax recalled, but “Osborn’s bright practicality” worked. The senior and sophomore classes approved the code in the first vote at the end of the 1908-09 academic year, while “the other two voted it down vociferously from opposite ends of the campus.”
What would have been an overwhelming loss was instead a split decision — and a symbolic victory. All four classes would not embrace the Honor Code for three more years, in 1912. “However,” Truax told Pilkington, “on that June day it started, at least, a great change of climate on the Hill.”
Truax went on to earn advanced degrees in philosophy and law and to establish a solid reputation as a poet while devoting a career to real estate, construction and corporate law before co-founding The New Yorker in 1925 and serving as a director of the pioneering magazine for nearly half a century. William Shawn, the magazine’s legendary editor, credited Truax with “one of the best rational minds I have ever encountered” and insisted that “at several critical junctures … he saved the magazine from collapse.”
At his death in 1978, The New Yorker eulogized Truax in terms befitting the creator of the Honor Code: as “an old-fashioned man, in the sense that he was a conjunction of all those qualities — honor, prudence, integrity, determination, thrift, perseverance, good manners — with which one generation invariably endows an earlier one.”
— Donald Challenger
The key: Students in charge
Hamilton is one of only about 100 colleges and universities to have a formal student Honor Code. While the details of Hamilton’s Honor Code have slowly evolved to take into account changes in teaching, technology and academic disciplines, the principles at the code’s foundation have remained immutable. A formal code includes a student pledge, unproctored exams, a reporting procedure for violations and a student judiciary committee. Our Honor Code grants students substantially more freedom than most institutions of higher education — within the Ivy League, only undergraduate-focused Princeton and Dartmouth have formal codes — and, in return, students are expected to acknowledge and document all sources, to avoid “misrepresentation and falsification,” to refuse to give or receive assistance on exams and tests, to adhere to rules distinguishing individual from collaborative efforts, and generally to “abstain from dishonesty in all academic work.”
All those thou-shalt-nots, of course, can be found in one form or another at most colleges. What distinguishes a true Honor Code are student initiative and self-governance. Since 1912, when the Hamilton code won full student approval and a six-student committee was created to adjudicate violations — the forerunner of today’s Honor Court — it has relied on students’ own collective sense of integrity to create an honest intellectual environment.
Donald McCabe, a professor at Rutgers Business School, has extensively researched cheating in higher education and is the founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity. Over the past 20 years, he has surveyed more than 200,000 college students and has written about academic integrity and honor codes. In 2001, McCabe and two other professors published “Cheating in Academic Institutions: A Decade of Research,” and concluded that institutional policies like honor codes do indeed have a significant effect on students’ behavior. The article argued that cheating was less prevalent “at schools with an honor code and a peer culture that condemns dishonesty.” McCabe’s statistics showed that schools with honor codes had about a quarter lower rates of cheating. In the past decade, however, McCabe has changed his tune regarding honor codes.
“At that time, I was wavering,” says McCabe of his 2001 opinion. Now, he notes, he has less faith in institutional programs like honor codes. “I am hopeful, but if I had to place a bet I would bet against honor codes…. It all comes down to competition and a desire to get things done,” he sighs during a phone interview.
National studies tend to support McCabe’s pessimism. A 2011 Pew Research Center survey of college administrators found that 55 percent of them believed incidents of plagiarism in student writing had grown during the previous decade. Of those holding this belief, 89 percent put part of the blame on the Internet.
However, McCabe does believe that honor codes can motivate students if those codes have substantial renewed support from the faculty and student body each year. He also stands by one important element of his earlier findings: When honor codes and the courts or committees that govern them are, like Hamilton’s, student-driven, they are more likely to discourage dishonesty. McCabe notes that student involvement in determining punishment and a peer-culture intolerance for dishonesty encourage academic integrity.
“There is a certain strength in self-governance,” McCabe says.
The sound of pencils tapping
Remembering Hamilton’s own student-driven Honor Code, alumni fondly recall the freedom it allowed them when they were students. On Sept. 6, The Boston Globe printed a letter from Stephen P. Steinberg ’66 in response to an article discussing the cheating scandal at Harvard. In his letter, Steinberg contrasted the scandal with the Hamilton Honor Code. He described the custom of signing a pledge of honesty for unproctored exams and papers prepared outside of class. “All violations were handled by the honor board, composed only of students,” wrote Steinberg. “Although cheating may have been present, I never witnessed or heard of anyone cheating during my four years.”
In Half-Century Annalist Letters, many alumni have cited the importance of the Honor Code in their lives. In his 2007 address, Rich Feleppa ’57 recalled how the Honor Code instilled “a personal commitment of trust and obligation.” He remembered that the code allowed him and his peers the freedom to take coffee and smoke breaks during exams. However, in contrast with Steinberg’s experience, Feleppa did recall instances of cheating.
“It was only once or twice during our four years that a violation required that solemn announcement here in Chapel, ‘The Honor Court regrets to announce that this member of our student body be expelled from Hamilton College for fraud in an examination,’” Feleppa wrote. “The silence that followed said it all.”
Robert Kantrowitz ’82 also remembers intolerance for academic dishonesty among Hamilton students. Though he is the current chair of the Mathematics Department and has been a faculty member for 23 years, Kantrowitz can still recall with clarity his undergraduate years at Hamilton.
“There used to be an old tradition,” Kantrowitz says. He twiddles with a pencil and drums it against a wooden desk, emitting several gentle but deliberate thwacks. He explains that students would tap a pencil on a desk during an exam after witnessing cheating. The noise was a signal to cheaters to “cut it out,” says Kantrowitz — an unspoken act, but an intentional message.
The pencil-tap tradition that Kantrowitz describes is in fact mentioned explicitly in the third section of the current Honor Code. While the first section of the code includes an honor pledge and the second section details examples of academic dishonesty, the third section, titled “Student Obligation,” emphasizes that Hamilton students are expected to support the Honor Code and report suspected dishonesty.
Honor Court: The Process
- After a student has been accused of an Honor Code violation, Honor Court Chair Mercy Corredor ’15 and Associate Dean of Students Stephen Orvis decide if the case warrants an evidentiary meeting.
- Only the accused student, the complainant, the associate dean and the Honor Court chair attend this confidential evidentiary meeting. Allegations and evidence of misconduct are discussed. If the student admits responsibility, the case will not advance to the Honor Court. In such cases, the violation will be resolved by means of an administrative hearing in which the associate dean of students and the Honor Court chair decide upon an appropriate penalty.
- The most minor penalty: a tutorial seminar on how to cite references. More severe: a mark of “XF” on a transcript, indicating “removed from the course for academic dishonesty” and figuring into the student’s academic average as an “F.” The most severe: Following a full Honor Court hearing, suspension for a first violation and expulsion from the College for a second violation.
- If the case proceeds to the full Honor Court — now comprising the nonvoting student chair, seven other voting students and three voting faculty members — a separate supporting faculty member guides the accused student through the process and consults on the arguments he or she presents to the court. Private attorneys are not allowed at Honor Court hearings.
- During a hearing, the Honor Court chair and the associate dean of students direct the proceedings. These include statement of allegations, presentation of evidence and witnesses in support of allegations, presentation of witnesses that dispute the allegations, and closing statements from both the accused and the complainant(s). Throughout this process, members of the Honor Court may pose questions to the participants. The Honor Court chair conducts the hearing; the associate dean of students administers the disciplinary action.
Truth and fairness at a cost
The Honor Code, which stipulates that students refrain from academic dishonesty and report all instances witnessed, ensures that the College deals uniformly with violations. Professors in each department are not supposed to handle violations privately or individually. While the ultimate goals are truth and fairness, the means to the end include a significant amount of discomfort for both students and professors.
“You feel sick … faculty are not happy to catch cheaters,” says Katheryn Doran, associate professor of philosophy and former chair of the department. She notes that while there are sometimes honest mistakes made in attribution, there are also irresistible opportunities for students to cut and paste chunks of text from the Internet and insert them into writing assignments.
As easy as it is to plagiarize, it is just as easy to get caught. An abrupt change in tone or voice within a paper indicates to professors that the work may not be the student’s own, says Doran. “It’s almost laughable,” she says; “the language that they use is so clearly not their own.”
Some students come to Hamilton from high schools that encourage teachers to submit student essays to websites that check documents for unoriginal content. Hamilton professors, however, typically do not use such services to catch plagiarism; that would negate the very essence of the Honor Code.
“We trust one another unless there’s reason not to,” says Stephen Orvis, professor of government and the current associate dean of students. The associate dean of students helps resolve all reported violations of the Honor Code. This academic year is Orvis’ first in his new role; Karen Brewer, professor of chemistry, served as the associate dean of students for four years prior. Orvis notes that there are typically about 30 cases brought forward to the associate dean of students each year.
Before serving as associate dean of students, Orvis had attended several Honor Court trials, as a complainant in some cases and as a faculty member supporting an accused student in other cases. Professors Kantrowitz and Doran have also served as complainants and as supporting faculty members for the accused. Both note that the experience is unpleasant.
“On the other side of the table was one of my colleagues,” Kantrowitz says, recalling a case where he supported an accused student he believed was innocent. He felt “pitted against” the accusing faculty member and reveals that there remains some latent tension between him and the other professor to this day. After all was said, the court found the student to be innocent. Kantrowitz says the student was so traumatized by the experience, she transferred out of Hamilton.
Doran has felt uneasy assisting accused students for different reason — during cases where she suspects that the accused student is guilty but the student has asked her to give supportive counsel for the hearing. Doran has also served as a counsel for students involved in Judicial Board hearings, which discipline students who violate the more general and less academic Student Code of Conduct.
“As a philosopher, I’ve felt ambivalent about being an advisor,” Doran says, noting that in such cases she will give procedural support on how to best argue an accused student’s position. She remarks, “Like an attorney, I suspend judgment.”
The pressure for academic integrity
Regardless of the strengths or weaknesses of a particular case, it is the Honor Court’s job to seek the truth. While the associate dean of students and the Honor Court chair officiate, the court’s seven student representatives and three faculty members are allowed to question witnesses, the complainant and the accused student. Next, they deliberate among themselves and vote on each hearing. A hearing can be held only if there are at least five student representatives and one faculty member present.
Like other governing bodies, the Honor Court uses precedent as guidance during hearings. There must be an overwhelming amount of evidence that cheating occurred for the court to find a student guilty. In cases of suspected cheating where two exams are similar, Honor Court Chair Mercy Corredor ’15 notes that it can be extremely difficult to determine whether the exams are similar by coincidence or some other factor.
“I’ve honestly spent six hours deliberating … serving on the Honor Court is not easy,” Corredor says. She insists that student representatives are integral to the court. As a current student, she can easily put herself in the accused students’ positions. She says that sometimes she sympathizes with students, while other times she feels empathy for the accused student’s predicament but believes the behavior was unacceptable. Corredor has even disagreed with faculty representatives on the court.
At the beginning of her first year at Hamilton, Corredor decided to apply to be a representative. (Each student class votes on its student representatives, while faculty vote on the faculty representatives; the outgoing court always votes in the new chair, who then serves until graduation.) Corredor wanted to serve on the court because she had been frustrated by the lack of academic integrity at her high school. “If I don’t study enough for a test, I don’t feel entitled to the same grade as someone else,” Corredor says. “I think most people here are ambitious enough to write their own papers, but [a few] stress out and do what’s easy.”
When asked informally, other Hamilton students who say they do not cheat at Hamilton concede that they sometimes illicitly collaborated with friends on homework in high school. Some modestly admit that they were the ones providing answers for their cheating friends. However, students say they take Hamilton work much more seriously because they value the process of inquiry that goes into completing assignments.
Redwan Saleh ’13, a government major, says that a majority of Hamilton students, including himself, don’t see the Honor Code being “enforced heavily.” Due to the closed disciplinary proceedings, that may appear true. Students sign the Honor Code at the beginning of their first year and are frequently prompted by professors to sign an honor pledge when completing exams and assignments each semester, but violations and disciplinary actions are not publicized frequently. It is only at the end of each semester that the dean of students’ office emails the campus with a list of the types and frequencies of Honor Code violations. Despite the low profile of disciplinary actions, however, Saleh believes that students take the Honor Code seriously. “People are spending a lot of time and money on this education,” he says, adding that students at Hamilton are “here to learn.”
Students also anticipate that outsiders will place high value on an education from schools like Hamilton. “The Honor Code is important to the credibility of our institution,” says Adam Wenick ’13, an economics major. “We need to produce scholars that create original work, you know?” he says. “Without the Honor Code, my work isn’t credible.”
Few offenders, but are all reported?
Kantrowitz, Doran, Orvis and Corredor all affirm that poor time management can and does lead to cheating and plagiarism. More than 60 percent of the 124 violations within the past five years have been cases of plagiarism, both intentional and unintentional. Other cases have included cheating on in-class and take-home exams, unauthorized collaboration, misrepresentation and self-plagiarism — cases in which a student submits the same work for more than one course without permission from the instructors.
Preceding Corredor as Honor Court chair was Tyler Roberts ’12, who served for three years and oversaw the last major changes to the Honor Code in 2010. Those changes clarified situations in which cheating and plagiarism could occur, focusing particularly on “electronic sources.” They also updated the code’s language to reflect changes in Hamilton’s grading system. Roberts, who now attends Columbia Law School, says it is important to keep the roughly 25 alleged violations each year in perspective, noting that “out of 1,800 students,” that is a tiny percentage of offenders — about 1.4 percent of the student body, though some violations no doubt go unreported.
Doran believes more discussion within Hamilton’s academic community is necessary because the success of the Honor Code depends upon the support of that community. “It’s not part of the conversation that reminds people it is a priority,” she says. Doran notes that when she taught at Wellesley College, panel discussions on a variety of controversial topics, including academic integrity, occurred frequently.
While a majority of students assert that they would report cheating, a few admit that they would feel uncomfortable ratting out a classmate. And even those who say they would do the right thing waver a bit when asked if they would report a friend.
“Based on my experience, students don’t generally report other students,” Roberts says. He notes that it is potentially awkward to turn in a friend or classmate you see every day. Additionally, he says, students cannot report anonymously because the accused has the right to confront the accuser during the hearing. Students who witness cheating are best off mentioning suspicious acts to a professor, Roberts advises. This way, the professor can then make the decision to bring the case to the Honor Court if there is evidence of dishonesty.
In fact, the Economics Department now proctors all exams after students witnessed illicit collaboration during unproctored exams five years ago. The witnesses did not feel comfortable mentioning the cheating students’ names or initiating an Honor Court case, but requested that exams be proctored out of fairness to the honest students in the course.
Betsy Jensen, an economics professor who has taught at Hamilton for 29 years, says that the Economics Department verified that proctored exams are permissible under the Honor Code before reluctantly instituting a policy of proctored exams. “I personally think that the vast majority of students in economics courses would not cheat, but I respect the request of the students who reported the cheating,” Jensen says.
Course-by-course clarity is crucial
Unsurprisingly, first-year students commit the majority of violations that do result in an evidentiary or Honor Court hearing. Students come to Hamilton and face higher expectations for their academic work, which in turn must compete for their time with socializing, extracurricular activities and jobs. The deluge of accessible information can sometimes drown out institutional messages of academic integrity.
“It doesn’t show that there’s a moral decline,” says Doran of recent cheating cases in higher education. “It just means we’re all too human.” She also believes that students don’t have a complete understanding of proper citation methods for each department.
Doran, Kantrowitz and Orvis all note that it is imperative for professors to clearly communicate their expectations. Otherwise, students might take guidelines for one course and apply them to another. For example, Kantrowitz notes, the Math Department encourages collaboration on homework by assigning partners. Meanwhile, the majority of academic departments, including math, do not allow collaboration on in-class exams. Some departments, however, allow collaboration on take-home exams, provided that the students involved acknowledge the degree of collaboration.
“I don’t think at the heart of it, it’s an issue of deviousness,” Kantrowitz says. He believes the examination of proper academic collaboration and citation relates to the essence of scholarship. Hamilton students should not obsess over the scary and intimidating consequences stipulated in the Honor Code, he says. Rather, they should concern themselves with being responsible for providing a sufficient frame for scholarly conversation. Students should build on what they read and what they discuss with others, and they should be able to express their own thoughts in that context.
Despite such complexities, Hamilton’s Honor Code has survived — and prevailed — through 100 years of transformations in curriculum, the student body, pedagogical practices and technology. There is no doubt that a few have circumvented the code and evaded the Honor Court in that time, but the community atop the Hill remains one largely characterized by honesty and trust. Indeed, the purpose of the Honor Code ultimately reflects the goal of a liberal arts education — the capacity to think for oneself in an ever-changing world.