Decoding the Honor Code

The honor code is too vague to be effective

Harvard College’s new honor code, implemented this year in conjunction with the new Honor Council, is intended to foster a common culture of academic honesty at the College. The full text of the code was rolled out as part of the registration process prior to the commencement of this semester: Each student was required to electronically sign a statement affirming their awareness of the honor code in order to register for enrollment.

Early in the planning process, we praised the makeup of the Honor Council and the idea of an honor code. We continue to support the concept of having an honor code at the College and understand its importance in creating a cultural shift toward academic integrity. But this code is not the right one.

Over the past few years, the need for improvements in the academic culture of the College has become clear. The Gov 1310 cheating scandal was striking in its size and reach, but the evidence suggests that it was hardly an isolated incident: Multiple Crimson senior surveys have reported startling numbers of graduating students who have cheated during their four years at the College. Harvard has a problem, and an honor code could go some way toward fixing it.

The current honor code, however, fails to establish a clear moral vision. Its ultimate appeal is not to ethical values or a sense of pride in one’s work, but a violation of “the standards of our community" and of "the wider world of learning and affairs." Yet the code does not explain what these standards are, or why they exist—and administrators who have promoted it in speeches haven't explained that either.

Neither the text of the code nor the messaging around it has stressed the real meaning of honesty or integrity, the importance of taking pride in one's own work and respecting the work of others, or the satisfaction of making meaningful contributions to the classroom and College. The honor code misses an opportunity to hold up these principles, which Harvard students relate to far more closely than they do to the mere existence of "standards" or "rules."


Introducing an honor code provides one avenue to a wider culture of academic honesty at the College. But the code in its present form neither appeals sufficiently to principles of honor and ethics, nor clearly codifies what is and is not acceptable. An honor code is far more powerful when it describes a well-defined moral vision and helps students understand why that vision should be important to them. If Harvard really wants to change its culture, it's going to need to change its wording, too.


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