A Needed Change

Harvard’s new honor code rightly addresses new challenges

Last week, members of the Harvard faculty approved the College’s first-ever honor code, likely to go into effect in the fall of 2015. The code will require students to make regular affirmation of their academic integrity. In the aftermath of the unprecedented Government 1310 cheating scandal, in which nearly two percent of the student body came under investigation for academic dishonesty, the new honor code represents a positive and needed measure.

Some faculty, like former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, have expressed doubts concerning  the honor code’s effectiveness, and in an ideal world, we might be able to adhere to Harvard’s long-standing tradition of not asking its members to take oaths or pledges. At the same time, the Gov. 1310 scandal showcased a deep crisis of integrity at the College, the graveness of which could not be simply ignored by the faculty.

The detractors may be right when they say that an honor code would clunkily address symptoms of academic dishonesty—but studies show colleges with honor codes exhibit significantly less cheating than those without. While an implicit understanding of honor among the Harvard community is more desirable than an explicit code, inculcating that understanding among students is a difficult task that must start somewhere. An honor code is a positive step toward that end.

As such, the honor code should be more than a limp paragraph, dutifully affixed to syllabi or hurriedly name-checked in an introductory lecture and never brought up again. In order to have any effect on the student body, the honor code must be proudly and assiduously advocated by tutors, administrators, and professors.


The admissions officers who recruit applicants should especially emphasize the honor code in their correspondence with future students in order to convey from the outset the academic expectations of the Harvard community. The California Institute of Technology’s honor code, which is proudly and prominently featured in the school’s admissions literature, might serve as a good example in this regard.

When implemented, Harvard’s proposed honor code will likely transfer most, if not all, academic dishonesty from the jurisdiction of the Administrative Board to a newly created “honor board,” which will include students as well as faculty. Considering the frustrating opacity that students often ascribe to the Ad Board, the membership of actual students in these decisions would go far in furthering disciplinary transparency at Harvard as well as student ownership over the process.

At every other Ivy League school, undergraduates already sit on judicial boards or are involved in disciplinary proceedings in one form or another. All but Yale have instituted a formal honor code or declaration of academic integrity. It’s commendable that Harvard will catch up to its peer institutions, though unfortunate that it took a major cheating scandal to catalyze that needed transformation.