Do the Honors

Harvard’s little red book, the Handbook for Students, is four hundred and twenty five pages long. Of those pages, two are devoted to student-run businesses, one details the “care of furnishings and personal property,” and seven are reserved for information about Harvard’s libraries. Only one miniscule section is reserved for “honesty”—about the same amount of space allotted to the section on “Nonpayment of Telephone Bills.”

This is more than a mere inequity in distribution of handbook space: It is indicative of the emphasis that Harvard places on the role of honor and integrity in the life of students. The fact that the handbook devotes much space to detailing disciplinary procedures and possible punishments, but essentially none to addressing the underlying problem of dishonesty shows that the College administration has chosen to address the symptoms and not the illness. To actually address the core of the problem, Harvard should adopt a simple academic honor code stating two things: that the student neither gave nor received inappropriate aid on an assignment or exam, and that the student did not misrepresent his or her work or commit plagiarism.

It may sound trite, but it is important to ensure honesty and trust in the undergraduate community, where Harvard students learn and live. Although individual professors’ policies on academic honesty are often outlined in syllabi, and the eight lines in the student handbook are better than nothing, Harvard lacks a cohesive code of honor, which would set a universal precedent of integrity both inside and outside of the classroom.

Dating from the institution of the first collegiate honor code at the College of William and Mary in 1779, honor codes have been a defining attribute of many of America’s most reputable institutions. Caltech, Stanford, Princeton, Williams College, and the University of Virginia all have explicitly defined honor codes in either an academic or general setting. Stanford, for instance, has an Honor Code for academic integrity, written by students in 1921, as well as a Fundamental Standard of Behavior for Stanford students outside of class.

Academic honor codes operate on a mutual understanding between students and faculty. In this beautifully simple and effective “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” system, students are trusted to do their own work in a manner entirely unfamiliar to most Harvard students. Professors have the convenience of distributing examinations via e-mail or other methods to their students, who are trusted to complete exams wherever they choose, outside of the watchful eye of proctors or teaching fellows. If one student finds a fellow student violating the academic honor code, it is his or her duty to report their peer, and if they are found not to have, the punishments for both students are comparable. This system, explicitly based on reciprocal trust, is surprisingly successful at promoting integrity on campus, even in a cynic’s world.

Although the Harvard community assumes that every student knows right from wrong—and how to distinguish her own work from somebody else’s—this knowledge alone does little to stifle petty academic dishonesties and greater scholastic discretions. Conscience and an eight-line clause are not enough to instill students with a sense of academic accountability. Making the honor code omnipresent, by having students sign it upon the completion of every exam or posting the honor code in every lecture hall, would be a constant reminder of the academic contract. This is not for the purpose of being didactic, but in order to integrate the code into routine academic life.

Crucially, in conjunction with an academic honor code, Harvard should create a general standard of conduct similar to the Fundamental Standard at Stanford. Stanford’s standard reads: “Students at Stanford are expected to show both within and without the University such respect for order, morality, personal honor, and the rights of others as is demanded of good citizens. Failure to do this will be sufficient cause for removal from the University.” A clearly outlined standard such as this will emphasize a sense of personal honor and moral conduct outside the classroom. Harvard will say two things: Students should refrain from immoral acts not because they will be punished, but because the actions are wrong; and the values (hopefully) instilled by Harvard will be carried far beyond the gates of the Yard.

In conjunction with the Honor Code, Harvard should also establish an Honor Council composed of students, faculty, and administration officials in order to publicly try students accused of breaching the Honor Code. The frighteningly mysterious and over-reaching Administrative Board at Harvard is outdated and in dire need of reform. Although it mostly issues slaps on the wrist to Harvard freshmen caught drinking alcohol in the Yard, the Ad Board is actually charged with deliberating on almost all of the cases of student misconduct. However, it seems extraordinarily inconsistent that the same Board should deliberate on a case of a tactless but well-meaning beer-guzzling freshman and on a dishonest student charged with fabricating lab results. Simple discipline for relatively minor infractions must be separated from larger moral issues on campus.

Creating an Honor Council (separate from the Ad Board) to uphold an official honor code is the only way for Harvard to acknowledge that it is capable of distinguishing the treatment from the diagnosis and the punishment from the crime. College students should be considered adults and held up to a mature standard of honesty. By articulating that standard, Harvard would show its desire to trust, rather than reprimand, and its faith that students will rise to the occasion.

Emma M. Lind ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Grays Hall.