Administrators Discuss College Honor Code

Part III in a IV Part Series

Melody Y. Hu and Eric Newcomer

(Part II of this story appeared on March 23, 2010.)

As the College turns its attention to a sweeping review of academic dishonesty at Harvard, one topic continues to come up in discussions: an honor code.

According to Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds, faculty and adminstrators have begun preliminary discussions about the adoption of an honor code at Harvard.

“I think we’re at a moment where we must be thinking about doing something [about academic dishonesty],” said Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris. “I think looking much more carefully at honor codes is certainly something that would only be responsible at this moment.”

Beyond the nebulous expectation that the policy would heighten student integrity, the format of a Harvard honor code—should one ever come to pass—remains decidedly unclear.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the form and details of a potential Harvard honor code, one thing remains certain: many College administrators are looking for a way to combat academic dishonesty at Harvard—which Harris recently called “a real problem”—and they hope that an honor code may be the solution.

A NEBULOUS IDEA

While the College adminstration’s discussions about student integrity have pointed to an honor code as a potential remedy to academic dishonesty, administrators are hesitant to describe the exact nature of a Harvard honor code and emphasize that the idea is in the premature stages of planning.

“Honor codes are a genus, not a species,” Harris says. “[We’ve] got to figure out what is the species that adapts well to [the Harvard] eco-system.”

Essentially, an honor code is a document signed by students who promise to uphold certain standards of conduct. The policy is typically accompanied by an assumption of integrity on the part of students—consequently, schools that institute honor codes will often allow or even encourage unproctored exams, for example.

But beyond these basic elements, the differences between one honor code and the next can be significant.

“It seems like there’s really a spectrum of types of honor codes to have,” says Gabriel Schwartz, student co-chair of Haverford College’s Honor Council.

While Schwartz says some schools, such as the United States Military Academy at West Point, have rigidly defined honor systems, Haverford has an honor code that evolves every year.

At Haverford, Schwartz says, “There’s much more of a focus on dialogue...on really getting to understand the person and their perspective.”

As part of the school’s semi-annual “Plenary,” undergraduates meet to change, adapt, and then eventually ratify a new version of Haverford’s honor code.

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