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Let’s make an Honor Code deal

Thomas Flint - Guest Column | Wednesday, September 10, 2003

In the first part of this column, I argued that only a tiny fraction of honor code violations at Notre Dame are being referred to honesty committees. I also suggested that this fact should alarm all of us, faculty and students alike. In this concluding column, I wish to discuss how we might deal with the problem.

Mending our ways will not be easy. Still, some first steps are evident. Students might do some genuine soul-searching about their own dedication to academic integrity. Academic commissioners in the residence halls might ask themselves whether the maintenance of dorm files, containing exams, essays and the like, is anything more than a semi-clandestine means of encouraging successful cheating. Administrators could do a better job of educating new teachers about the honor code. Department chairs could discuss the code with their faculty and could appoint to honesty committees only those who will take their responsibility seriously. And instructors could be honest with themselves about why they might be inclined to ignore their obligations under the code and could think more carefully about the example they set when they do so.

These are all rather conservative remedies. Some might feel that other, more radical courses of actions are called for, such as scrapping the code entirely, say, or strengthening it by mandating much harsher penalties both for students who cheat and for faculty who ignore the code. But one other intriguing possibility falls somewhere between the tame and the wild: adopting what we might call a Let’s Make a Deal honor code.

Many honor-code universities explicitly give individual instructors the authority to confront students they suspect of dishonesty and to negotiate a fitting punishment. Most of those universities require that both the instructor and student sign (and send to the appropriate administrator) a form describing the offense and the agreed upon penalty. Should the student either deny the allegation of dishonesty or feel that the proposed punishment is inappropriate, an appeal is usually available.

Notre Dame could easily adopt a Let’s Make a Deal code. Faculty and students who reach an agreement would send a signed report to the associate provost’s office, which would, as it does now, keep track of these files and impose additional sanctions on those guilty of recidivism. When agreements could not be reached, cases would be forwarded to the relevant honesty committees, which would handle cases exactly as they do now. Appeals of honesty committee decisions would also proceed as they do now. And all records would end up in the associate provost’s office.

What is there to be said for a Let’s Make a Deal code? Provided that the procedures for reporting private agreements were simple and clear, many faculty would probably report. Such, at least, seems to have been the case at a number of universities that have adopted such a policy. Since Penn State moved to this type of system recently, roughly 400 cases have been reported per year. Under their old, all-cases-go-to-hearings system, the yearly average was less than 6.

Faculty might thus be saved from the dishonesty inherent in the under-the-table deals they now make with students. Honesty committees would probably need to meet even less often than they do now, thereby saving members a good deal of time and energy. Furthermore, since all records would eventually reach the associate provost’s office, repeat offenders would find it much harder to escape detection.

The likely advantages to a Let’s Make a Deal code are thus apparent and significant – but so are the probable disadvantages. Since experience suggests that most students will go to great lengths to avoid the embarrassment involved in a full hearing, teachers would clearly have the upper hand in negotiating agreements. Though I have no doubt that most instructors would try to fashion just agreements, they would often be doing so while dealing with strong feelings of personal affront, feelings which are not the most conducive to students’ receiving fair and consistent penalties. Furthermore, our current code, by insisting that all cases of apparent academic dishonesty be handled communally via set procedures, makes a strong statement about how grave an offense cheating is, an offense against the whole academic community. No such statement is made when private deals are sanctioned. On the contrary, some might argue that the offense of academic dishonesty is in fact trivialized by a university that treats it as a matter for in-class housecleaning. Many would no doubt discern an element of lowering our standards to match our practice were we to make such a shift. And it’s not obvious that this is the best means of closing a gap between one’s ideals and one’s behavior.

There are undoubtedly more pluses and more minuses connected to our moving toward such an alternative. It is a change we should make, if at all, only after extended discussion. I believe, though, that it is a change worthy of such a discussion. Our honor code is far from a complete failure. But the code simply has not become the integral part of campus culture that its initiators hoped it would be. Whether this means that further changes to the code are in order, and (if so) whether mild or more radical amendments are called for, are matters eminently worthy of further thought and conversation.

Thomas Flint is a professor of philosophy. This column is the second in a two-part series. He can be contacted at flint.1@nd.edu.

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