By Clay Parlette
It’s in all of our syllabi. Some of us have read it. Other slightly more dedicated students may have even copied it down at some point in their college careers. Yet, all of us have sworn to comply with it. What is the mysterious “it” I speak of? It’s the University Honor Code. Before I mock our school’s ever-so-important statement of academic integrity, let’s read it, so you might have a clue what I’m talking about. The Honor Code of The University of Findlay reads: “I will not knowingly engage in any dishonorable behavior, cheat, steal, lie or commit any act of plagiarism during any academic work, course or endeavor. If I observe an act which I believe violates the University’s Honor Code, I may, at my discretion, report it to the appropriate personnel.”
So the first line in the Honor Code seems to be appropriate enough. Just like a witness on the stand swears to tell the truth—the whole truth and nothing but the truth—students swear not to cheat…or do anything bad or dishonorable. Fair enough. It’s the second line of the Honor Code that makes me chuckle: “If I observe an act which I believe violates the University’s Honor Code, I may, at my discretion, report it to the appropriate personnel.” This line is a prime example of a statement that has no spine. It literally means that, if I saw someone cheating, I may report it to the professor, or I may not. Now that’s a pretty binding promise.
Under this language, students can be equally compliant under the Honor Code by not reporting dishonest activity, as they are if they do report dishonest activity. This is sort of like when Florida hastily passed a bill in 2013 that effectively (albeit accidentally) banned all computers and smartphones from the state. OK, maybe it’s not that bad, but still. It’s like creating an important new rule to the game of basketball where all players may or may not be required to tell the referee if one of their teammates fouled another player. The foul would likely be caught anyway, but if for some reason it wasn’t, the players would be required to “use their discretion” in reporting it. Good luck with that.
Rules aren’t effective when left open-ended like this. Imagine a world of laws that allowed for the discretionary interpretation by each individual citizen. It doesn’t work, and it’s the reason we have police officers and judges—to use their professional discretion in determining fault. I think the intentions behind this Code are good, but this line is utterly useless, and laughable when looked at closely.
In cases like these, it serves best for the institution to make up its mind as to whether it wants an explicit Honor Code that describes specific violations and consequent actions, or a more vague Honor Code that instead lays a foundation of understanding and consequential action by University authorities if its principle is violated. Take, for instance, The Harvard College Honor Code:
“Members of the Harvard College community commit themselves to producing academic work of integrity – that is, work that adheres to the scholarly and intellectual standards of accurate attribution of sources, appropriate collection and use of data, and transparent acknowledgement of the contribution of others to their ideas, discoveries, interpretations, and conclusions. Cheating on exams or problem sets, plagiarizing or misrepresenting the ideas or language of someone else as one’s own, falsifying data, or any other instance of academic dishonesty violates the standards of our community, as well as the standards of the wider world of learning and affairs.”
It’s a bit wordy, but it’s potent, and has a sweet ring to it. Here, each student is warned of activity that won’t be tolerated, and, while not explicitly saying what might be done, it accomplishes the job of the Honor Code, which is to make a student aware of the expectations they are held to when completing academic work. It does not, like UF’s Honor Code, include a pathetic line that seems to desperately call for students to assist in ratting out their classmates, without “forcing them” to do so.
In the end, I suppose our Honor Code gets the job done, but it is foolishly unclear in its purpose. As an incredible institution of higher learning, I suggest we just say what we mean and be done with it. If the focus is to keep students honest, I think we can do much better.