Honor Proposal Would Catch Harvard Up, Incrementally, With the Times

This is part I of a two-part series on Harvard's proposed student honor code.

In fall 2012 when Harvard administrators investigated roughly 125 undergraduates for alleged plagiarism or inappropriate collaboration on a Government course’s final take-home exam, Harvard’s relationship with academic integrity came under increased scrutiny.

Longtime critics of the College and its disciplinary system raised their voices anew, questioning Harvard’s academic culture and its allegedly antiquated Administrative Board. A number of these detractors, both within the University and outside of it, called for Harvard to align itself with some peer institutions and their more formalized policies governing academic integrity.

Next Tuesday, over a year and a half after the cheating scandal spilled into the news, Faculty members are expected to vote on just that—a proposal to institute an honor code that would formally emphasize the College’s commitment to academic integrity. The code’s supporters point to peer schools’ existing systems as evidence that such a policy could work to cultivate a stronger culture of academic integrity at Harvard.

Yet, even as the honor code proposal and its call to involve student voice in the disciplinary process may represent a significant policy shift at the College, experts say that these proposed changes come much later, and perhaps go less far, than their age-old counterparts at peer institutions.

Still, while some members of the committee that drafted the proposal acknowledge its limited scope, they maintain that changes to Harvard’s disciplinary process must be incremental to be effective.

BEHIND THE TIMES

The Ad Board’s 1890 establishment makes it older than the House system, Widener Library, and Harvard Business School. The College’s primary disciplinary body has long been criticized, with detractors claiming that the board and its policies are outmoded.

The Ad Board is “almost a bit of an anachronism nationally,” said Gary Pavela, a former director of academic integrity at Syracuse University who has consulted other colleges on integrity issues.

After decades of only occasional changes in policy, the College’s proposal for an honor code, if approved, would eliminate most, if not all, academic dishonesty cases from the Ad Board’s jurisdiction with the creation of a student-faculty judicial board to hear alleged honor code violations. That “honor board” would bring student voice into the College’s disciplinary process for the first time.

Although such a change would be unprecedented for the College, Harvard’s proposal to engage students in its disciplinary process comes years behind many of its peers. Undergraduates sit on judicial boards or are involved in disciplinary proceedings in some form at every Ivy League school other than Harvard, and some such systems have been around for decades.

“By discussing a move from the system that’s currently in place to an honor code, it’s as if Harvard’s moved from the 1800s into the 1960s and 1980s, and so I suppose it’s a big step forward in terms of getting closer to modernity with the way one handles discipline cases,” said Peter F. Lake '81, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who specializes in higher education law.

The 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s saw an increase in student involvement in college disciplinary processes across the country, according to Matthew Gregory, president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration and associate dean of students at Louisiana State University. He said that during that time period, it became increasingly common to see panels entirely composed of students.

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