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Freshmen adjust to honor code, challenges

Joe Piarulli | Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Despite its often-emphasized importance and the severe consequences that can accompany its violation, the Academic Code of Honor is something many freshmen overlook during their transition to Notre Dame – a problem the University is working to address, officials said.

Vice president and associate provost Dennis Jacobs, co-chair of the University Code of Honor Committee, said freshmen especially must take the Honor Code seriously.

“The vast majority of students found responsible for Honor Code violations at Notre Dame are first-year students or sophomores,” he said.

A lack of academic integrity is a growing national problem to which Notre Dame is not immune, Jacobs said, noting that first-year students are perhaps the ones who need the most attention.

“National surveys show that seven out of eight college-bound students admit to cheating in high school,” Jacobs said. “When students enroll at Notre Dame, they need to recognize that academic dishonesty is not tolerated here.”

Faculty Honor Code Officer Thomas Flint, who has been teaching philosophy at Notre Dame for 23 years, said about 150 students over the past three years were caught for violating the Honor Code, with less than half of these students found guilty of a major violation.

“If Notre Dame were typical of American universities, we would have somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 cases of cheating every year,” Flint said. “Fortunately, our situation is not that bad, but it’s still bad enough … Far, far too many of our students simply don’t live up to the ideals for which the University stands.”

Consequences for infringements of the Academic Code of Honor can be unforgiving.

“Violating the Honor Code comes with serious penalties at this University,” said senior Kristin Graham, the University Code of Honor Committee’s other co-chair. “Whereas a violation in high school may have resulted in a minor penalty, Honor Code violations at Notre Dame range from zero credit on an assignment to flunking a course to suspension or dismissal from the University.”

Right now, roughly half of all Honor Code violations at Notre Dame involve plagiarism.

“Copying off the Internet without proper citation is the most rapidly growing offense,” Jacobs said. “We must teach first-year students the rules of citation so that there are no misunderstandings about how to avoid plagiarism.”

“To put it bluntly,” Flint said, “some students cheated their way into Notre Dame, and are trying to cheat their way through Notre Dame.”

A number of steps are taken to ensure that incoming freshman are made aware of the Honor Code, but Graham said students must make the guidelines work.

“The Honor Code itself is not successful or unsuccessful,” she said. “Students are successful or unsuccessful insofar as they fulfill its challenge to responsible, respectful scholarship.”

Before freshmen arrive on campus, they receive a copy of the Honor Code in the mail and must sign a pledge to abide by it. Although the pertinent information is also presented to them during orientation weekend, Graham said more could be done.

“The Code of Honor Committee hopes to improve its outreach to freshmen, possibly beginning with next year’s class,” Graham said. “We are currently in the process of developing an online tutorial about the Honor Code.”

Freshman Michael Lammie said he felt while most students are aware of and respect the Honor Code, they could stand to know more.

“I think freshmen understand the basics and the reasons that the Honor Code is there, but I doubt most of them know the details of it,” he said.

Lammie said Notre Dame’s Code did not require a great deal of adjusting on his part.

“There are no real big differences, other than that it seems like collaborative learning is encouraged more here than it was in high school, where it was more of an individual thing,” Lammie said.

For some freshmen, understanding the Honor Code is one thing, while agreeing with it is another.

“The Honor Code is there to make sure that students aren’t taking any shortcuts in their education. It is also there to protect the work of other people,” Lammie said. “I’m not sure if any part of it is being unfair.”

Fellow freshman Frank DiRocco did not fully agree. He learned about the Honor Code over the summer, when he signed the pledge required of incoming students stating that he would not participate in or tolerate academic dishonesty. Though he intends to follow this pledge, he said the latter part of the agreement was somewhat unfair.

“The fact that we must report violations of the Honor Code or we’re subject to the consequences for breaking the Honor Code is unreasonable,” he said.

DiRocco said this area of the Code is probably violated more frequently than others, because “people do not want to turn in friends.”

Flint said DiRocco may be on to something.

“Students rarely turn other students in, even when they have ample evidence that cheating is taking place,” he said. “Of the 150 or so cases I’ve read over the past three years, I believe that only one involved a student’s self-reporting a violation of the Code.”

Many freshmen, including DiRocco and Lammie, said they felt the administration and professors must shoulder much of the responsibility in making certain that freshmen know the Honor Code.

“Professors touched on [the Honor Code] at the beginning of the semester, but they never talked about anything in-depth,” Lammie said.

Bill Jenista, a student representative on the Honor Committee for the College of Engineering, said he thought Notre Dame could improve in this area.

“At a basic level I think freshmen and professors follow the Honor Code, but I think most people forget some of the finer points and consequently slip up on those,” he said. “Professors could be somewhat more explicit in the Honor Codes for their specific classes and then enforce them.”

The issue of explanation is compounded by the Honor Code’s ever-changing nature, as it is a document subject to revisions based on experience. Such revisions necessitate consistent education and awareness with regard to the Honor Code.

“In April 2005, the Academic Council approved a set of amendments to the Honor Code,” Jacobs said. “This fall we are trying to educate faculty and students about the revised Honor Code, and we are working to deepen students’ commitment to academic integrity.”

Every party involved must take some responsibility in maintaining academic honesty at Notre Dame, Graham said.

“Individual students and professors … need to realize how important their role is in promoting and upholding academic standards,” she said. “We have got to strive toward a united front on academic integrity because dishonesty unfairly affects other students’ efforts, seriously disrespects professors, and tarnishes this University’s reputation as an academic institution. We need to be firm in refusing to tolerate cheating of any kind in any of our academic endeavors.”

Goals of high awareness and harsh penalties are clear, but difficult to meet, she said.

“The challenge is to create a culture where academic dishonesty is simply unacceptable. Students and faculty alike need to reinforce the University’s commitment to responsible, honest scholarship,” Graham said. “If we can achieve that sort of atmosphere, then we will make significant progress towards academic integrity.”