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Honor Code responsibilities neglected

Thomas P. Flint | Monday, September 8, 2003

Notre Dame is quite properly proud of its Academic Code of Honor. Yet our honor code is not in the best of health. Many, many faculty are ignoring their responsibilities under the code. Many, many students are cheating and getting away with it. We need to face up to these facts and to consider what, if anything, we ought to do about them.

These are some of the conclusions I have reached after one year as Faculty Honor Code Officer. The recent shift in honor code procedures has made it possible for us to attain a University-wide picture of how the honor code is being implemented. And that picture is rather disturbing.

Research on college cheating suggests that a university such as Notre Dame would have hundreds if not thousands of honor code violations each year. Professor Donald McCabe of Rutgers University, the best-known contemporary researcher on academic integrity, conducted an extensive survey in 1999. Among students at private schools with an honor code (i.e., schools like Notre Dame), 23 percent admitted to cheating at least once on tests, while 45 percent said they had cheated at least once on written work.

If the numbers at Notre Dame are comparable to those found by McCabe, more than 1,800 Notre Dame students cheat on tests, while more than 3,600 cheat on written work. This means that at least 5,400 violations of the honor code have been committed by current undergraduates, with approximately 1,000 being committed in any given year.

How many honesty committee hearings actually took place last year? Forty. Yes, 40: 29 in Arts and Letters, six in Business, five in Science and none in Engineering. Unless Notre Dame students are far more honest than their colleagues at comparable institutions, honor code violations are leading to hearings only about 4 percent of the time.

It would be foolish, of course, to suggest that this figure is anything more than a reasonable estimate. But the general point seems to me undeniable: Only a tiny fraction of honor code violations are resulting in honor code hearings.

Why are so few infractions leading to hearings? Two explanations seem most plausible. First, many students are cheating without getting caught. And second, many faculty who do become aware of academic dishonesty are choosing to handle things on their own.

If these two factors do explain the low number of honesty hearings, should we be concerned? Yes. Widespread academic dishonesty, whether or not such dishonesty is caught by faculty, is a blemish upon the character of our University. If “successful” cheating at Notre Dame is as prevalent as I have speculated, it should be a significant source of shame for the student body.

Similarly disturbing is the behavior of the faculty. It’s easy to understand why professors are tempted to act unilaterally when they suspect academic dishonesty. Some may be ignorant of their responsibilities under the honor code; some may believe they can “protect” the student by settling the matter privately.

Other less honorable motives may also be present. At a university where terms such as “faculty governance” elicit sardonic smiles, the classroom is one of the few places where the power of the instructor is genuine and unchallenged. Hence, many professors resist surrendering control over the grade of a student suspected of cheating.

Furthermore, honesty hearings take more time and energy than simply confronting the student in question and deciding on the spot what penalty to impose. And faculty are hardly immune to the lure of cutting corners.

Whatever the motives for faculty non-compliance, there are strong reasons for thinking that this failure to abide by the responsibilities of the job is having deleterious consequences.

First, history and common sense suggest that justice is best served when judgment is rendered communally rather than individually. Though faculty will surely strive to be fair, an instructor who (in most cases) feels that his or her trust has been betrayed by an act of apparent dishonesty is hardly in the ideal position to judge fairly and dispassionately.

Furthermore, faculty who fashion private penalties are opening the door to the possibility of serial offenders. If the honor code is followed, students who commit a second violation will be identified and (usually) suspended or dismissed from the University.

Where private “deals” are made, this safeguard against recidivism disappears. Indeed, the door to a further inequity is opened. An “unlucky” student whose teachers abide by the honor code can be dismissed after two offenses; a “lucky” one whose teachers ignore the code can commit any number of offenses without further disciplinary action.

Finally, most faculty who engage in such acts of non-compliance ironically exhibit a kind of dishonesty themselves. They know (or should know) that the code requires them to act in a certain way. Yet they are failing to act in that way. And, of course, most of them are making their deals secretly, since they know that they have an obligation to act otherwise. One can only wonder what moral lessons are really being taught by faculty who act in this manner.

None of us, then, should be complacent about the current situation. Students and faculty alike have reason to look for ways to rectify matters. In the second part of this column, I will discuss one semi-radical change we might want to consider.

Thomas P. Flint is a professor of philosophy. This column is first in a two-part series. Contact him at flint.1@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.