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A burning issue

Thomas Flint | Tuesday, March 20, 2007

“I think we should burn the chair.”

This comment, made by a colleague many years ago, is not the sort of thing that usually comes from the mouth of a professor of philosophy. We’re more inclined to pursue what are (to normal people) curious inquiries into, say, the relationship between the chair and the hunk of wood of which it’s made. Mundane practical activities, such as burning chairs, we leave to others.

What occasioned this remarkable outburst by my colleague? We had just concluded listening to testimony in an honesty committee hearing. The student under suspicion of violating our honor code had been caught red-handed submitting a paper that had been cobbled together from a number of internet sources. Rather than confess, this fine young man insisted that he should be commended for having found all these Web sites and for having put the material together so effectively. Duplicity and arrogance streamed from his every pore and saturated the chair on which he sat. Hence, upon his departure, my colleague’s incendiary suggestion.

Despite the black humor evidenced by this suggestion, honesty hearings are rarely much fun. I’ve attended more than a hundred hearings, and they’re generally remarkably depressing affairs. Sometimes one leaves with little more than a reminder of humanity’s fallen nature. Even when students admit to their mistakes, an empty sense of mere justice – of confession without remorse or absolution, so to speak – can fill the room. Occasionally one feels that some significant moral progress has occurred – for example, that a student has come to regret his cheating, not just because he got caught, but because the act itself was so ugly. I’d like to report that such conversions of heart are the norm, but as a fine moral philosopher once noted, you can’t always get what you want.

All of us, though, should want something better than we currently have at Notre Dame with respect to our honor code. Two years ago, a survey of student and faculty attitudes and behavior related to academic integrity revealed that we have thousands of violations of the honor code annually at Notre Dame, that our faculty report violations they’re aware of only five to 10 percent of the time, and (ready for the good news?) that the average American university has an even bigger problem than we do. Our problem is big enough, though, and each of us should feel a degree of shame about it, especially at this time of year. Lent is a season when the Church encourages us to recognize where we’re falling short of our ideals, and to think about what we can do to attain them. Homilists rarely talk about cheating on tests, or plagiarizing papers, or copying homework, but there are few topics more worthy of our Lenten reflection.

One concrete step to further such reflection might be to attend the upcoming Theology on Tap session on academic integrity. From 9 p.m. to 10 today at Legends, three local luminaries will be speaking before opening the floor to questions and discussion. Dennis Jacobs, a celebrated teacher of chemistry and the associate provost who co-chairs the University Code of Honor Committee, will share the administration’s concerns about the issue. My colleague Bill Ramsey, a legendary lecturer and the former chair of philosophy’s honesty committee, will address (surprise) the philosophical and moral dimensions of the topic. And senior Sarah Glatt will offer a student’s perspective. It promises to be a legendary session.

Whether or not you attend the Theology on Tap meeting, I hope you’ll spend some time this Lent reminding yourself of the ideal of academic integrity that Notre Dame tries to promote by having an honor code, and of how you as an individual and we as a community might do a better job of living up to that ideal. As my colleague of years ago might say, it’s a burning issue.

Thomas P. Flint, philosophy professor, also serves as the Faculty Honor Code Officer, the principal liaison between the University Code of Honor Committee and the faculty.

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