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Union College gets it right with academic honor code

Thursday, October 4, 2012
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The Nott Memorial at Union College.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
The Nott Memorial at Union College.

After nearly a century without one, Union College has brought back an honor code this year. The code clearly prohibits academic dishonesty in its various forms, such as plagiarism, copying homework, falsifying data, cheating on tests, and sets up a student-led honor court for hearing cases. Only 100 or so colleges or universities around the country (Williams and Skidmore colleges are two of them) have such a code. More -- in fact, all -- should.

An honor code may sound antiquated, something out of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. But in this ethics-challenged age, where cheating is rife not only in education but business, sports and other areas, it seems needed more than ever.

Academic honor codes are often precipitated by a cheating incident, and that's the case with Union's. The school started thinking about one in 2006 after two mechanical engineering students collaborated on an assignment and then claimed they hadn't cheated, that they honestly believed they were allowed to share information. The dean and faculty member determined otherwise, and the students' graduation was delayed while they were forced to study about academic integrity.

The effort to restore the code and court, at the urging of those two students and with the help of chairman of ethics and philosophy Robert Baker, took years. It involved students, faculty and administrators, who studied other colleges' codes, took trips to some of those colleges and established a common definition of cheating.

This is about trust, among teachers and students, and among the students themselves. Teachers trust that their students are behaving with academic integrity, and students trust that their peers are working for their grades just as they do. It's a kind of social contract that research shows leads to less cheating and more pride in the school.

The names of students accused of cheating will be kept confidential, whatever the outcome of the case, but the number of cases will be made public as well as the results and punishments. Such transparency, too often lacking with government ethics boards, is necessary to determine whether the system is working and build faith in it.

The code doesn't require students to report instances of cheating, as those at some other colleges do. There might be more cases with such a requirement, but it will be more meaningful, empowering and educational if students report their fellow students not out of compulsion but because they understand that academic dishonesty is, as the honor code says, "a rejection of the very purposes and ideals for which the college stands: personal integrity, independence of thought ... and responsibility for one's own work." Baker says those concepts and the code are being discussed online, in dorms and classes all over campus.

Well put, honor code creators, and well done.

 

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