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Changes to Honor Code underway

Teresa Fralish | Tuesday, April 26, 2005

When economics professor David Ruccio announced to his microeconomics class that cheating had occurred on a recent exam, every student in the 150-person section listened as he proceeded to spend the entire class discussing academic integrity.

“I decided to speak … about the problem of cheating at Notre Dame and what I perceived to be the general complacency of students in the course,” he said.

Ruccio was concerned about student apathy – but he did not expect the response he got.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the student reaction, many of whom spoke up in class, met with me outside of class, or sent me e-mail messages indicating that they understood the issue,” he said.

For all the debates over Honor Code revisions and turnitin.com – an online service that allows Notre Dame faculty to check student papers for plagiarism – academic integrity ranks low as a subject for dining hall conversation.

“It’s maybe a bigger problem than students realize – we don’t talk about it that much,” senior Megan Casserlie said.

Casserlie serves on the University Honor Code Committee, a student, faculty and administrator group that oversees the code and its implementation.

The current Honor Code, which the University periodically revises, commits students to a high level of honesty and requires that they report any cheating they observe.

Still, administrators have often wondered about the level of cheating at Notre Dame, although a variety of factors and underreporting previously made it impossible to compile an accurate campus-wide picture of cheating – and difficult to design remedies.

Cheating at Notre Dame

Last fall, the University participated in a national study on attitudes toward cheating conducted by Duke University’s Center for Academic Integrity, of which Notre Dame and many other national institutions are members. Though many faculty and administrators believed cheating was not widespread on the Notre Dame campus, the survey results seem to indicate otherwise, associate provost Dennis Jacobs said.

“It’s an enormous problem at Notre Dame,” said Thomas Flint, faculty officer for the Honor Code Committee.

The survey queried 2,400 undergraduates and 250 faculty members about their perceptions of the severity of 20 different behaviors that constitute cheating, ranging from turning in the same paper for two classes to cheating on an exam, Jacobs said. Students were also asked if they engaged in cheating and whether they would be likely to report cheating they observed.

The University will not disclose any specific results, but the study did create cause for concern about undergraduate cheating.

According to the CAI Web site, about 75 percent of students on the average campus admit to some form of cheating, though honor codes were shown to significantly reduce major cheating.

“I think many at the University felt that Notre Dame students should be thought of as not comparable with the national statistics,” Jacobs said. “They’re not significantly better.”

The survey also showed significant disparity between faculty and student perceptions of cheating behaviors, with students generally viewing actions as less severe than faculty.

Jacobs said the University Honor Code Committee is currently assessing the results and will gradually make data available to various officials.

The current breakdown

In addition to the survey results suggesting a serious cheating problem, administrators also became increasingly aware that faculty members were not following University procedures for reporting and reprimanding cheating offenses.

“Part of the system is breaking down,” Jacobs said.

Current University policies call for teachers to refer cases to departmental honor code committees that investigate allegations, hold hearings and issue sanctions if they determine cheating occurred. Reports on cheating students are also forwarded to the provost’s office so that repeat offenders can be identified and disciplined further.

But rather than follow a procedure intended to promote fairness but sometimes viewed as cumbersome, slow and unclear, Jacobs and Flint said faculty undercut the reporting system to strike outside deals with students.

According to the fall 2004 survey, around one percent of cheating allegations resulted in formal departmental committee hearings, Jacobs said.

In addition, Jacobs said some faculty also resented losing control over the situation and feared the possibility that a committee could issue a course grade the faculty member did not assign or agree with.

“It doesn’t sit well with some faculty,” he said. “The loss of control has been a concern.”

As a result, many cases simply went unreported and administrators were left to guess at the real nature of cheating on campus. Last year, committees reported about 40-45 cases of cheating, Flint said.

Even when committees did convene, Flint said their operation varied from department to department, with some maintaining strong standards and others taking a less serious approach.

“In some departments, the environment is almost not appropriate,” he said.

Patricia Engel, a junior currently on the University Honor Code Committee, served on a physics departmental committee last year for one hearing. Engel said she was contacted about a month prior to the committee hearing and asked to serve.

“Apparently a case had come up, and they didn’t have someone,” she said.

Some of the physics committee members had past experience with honor code violations, Engel said, while others, including her, were trained immediately prior to the hearing.

“Realistically, I think convening when it was needed was a good thing,” she said. “We did our best not having extensive training.”

Honor Code: A work in progress

A University Honor Code has been in place since 1966, but officials have questioned whether students and faculty fully understand and follow its policies.

Currently, students entering Notre Dame must read a pamphlet containing the full Honor Code and sign a 70-word pledge promising to abide by it. The last major revisions to the code took place in 2002.

Additional changes had been in the works for the past two years, Jacobs said, and the survey showed reform was indeed needed. The departmental committee process seemed strained and students found the pledge and booklet dense and complicated.

Last fall, committees of students, faculty and administrators, worked on a series of amendments to the Honor Code, Casserlie said. She helped craft a shorter, more succinct pledge: “As a member of the Notre Dame community, I will not participate in or tolerate academic dishonesty.”

“We wanted to make it something that was more simple, that people would remember,” she said.

On the issue of underreporting, Flint said the University looked to other colleges that offered a student-faculty negotiation alternative to the somewhat cumbersome departmental hearing.

The option proposed for Notre Dame allows faculty to offer a penalty to students whom they believe have cheated, such as receiving a zero for the assignment, rather than proceeding to a departmental committee. If both parties agree on the decision, the instructor files a report of the incident and sanction with the provost’s office, Jacobs said.

The student can still opt for a departmental committee hearing prior to signing an agreement and up to seven days after. The provost’s office would also review cases and could lessen overly severe penalties, Jacobs said.

“We have not removed any rights that students would have,” Jacobs said.

Flint said this system might have potential side effects for students who might feel pressured into an unfair agreement but would begin rectifying the greater problem of unofficial student-faculty agreements.

“It’s possible for very unfair punishments to be imposed by the faculty member [currently],” he said. “In effect what we have are faculty who are acting dishonestly – it sets a terrible example.”

Notre Dame will also develop more specific guidelines on penalties for various behaviors to help professors determine sanctions and promote continuity.

Last Wednesday, the Academic Council, an administrative body that oversees many academic matters at Notre Dame, voted to approve all the proposed reforms, Jacobs said, and he and Flint said they were hopeful that these changes could begin to alter the climate.

“It’s probably the largest change we’ve made to the honor code since it was implemented,” Flint said.

Culture change

Honor Code committee members said they don’t expect the code amendments to create change overnight or be sufficient remedies in themselves. Instead, the University will initiate a variety of proactive measures aimed at creating broader awareness of the standards Notre Dame sets forth.

“We need to be concerned about promoting a positive image,” Flint said. “It has to be a very large effort.”

Over the summer and next year, Jacobs said the University will begin work on a variety of proactive measures for students and faculty. New honor booklets, written in more accessible language, will be produced separately for faculty and students, with relevant information for each group, he said.

Jacobs said the University also plans to create clearer honor code guidelines on the code itself and appropriate cheating sanctions for faculty and promote better faculty awareness on the honor code processes throughout colleges and departments.

“We’ll have a major push to educate faculty,” he said.

Notre Dame will also incorporate more material on the honor code into freshmen orientation and will create an online student-learning tool about the honor code. Jacobs believes the simpler pledge will resonate more strongly with students.

No one expects the cheating problem to be solved immediately, but officials say they are confident the University recognizes the problem and is taking the best steps to change the culture among undergraduates and faculty.

“We need to have a greater discussion on this campus,” Jacobs said. “Every member of this University, student and faculty alike, shares an aspiration that we all are honest in the way we deal with one another.”