Honor Code Aims to Stop Cheating at Roots
Published: Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 02:09
In the wake of a recent cheating scandal at Harvard University in which 125 students were accused of plagiarism or improper collaboration on a take-home final exam, the importance of an honor code to guard against academic malpractice has come to the forefront of national media attention.
While some major universities, including Harvard, operate without an honor code, Georgetown has a well-established honor system that was adopted in 1996.
According to Terrence Reynolds, associate professor in the theology department, there was no honor code at Georgetown when he started teaching at the university in 1991.
Early in his career at Georgetown, Reynolds felt that there was a need for a uniform way of addressing academic misconduct across all classrooms at Georgetown and was asked to chair the committee that proposed and later approved the Georgetown Honor System.
“An honor system is a way to assure that students are treated as fairly as possible across the main campus on those rare occasions when violations occur and that the resolution of the cases serves the larger educational mission of the university,” Reynolds said.
According to Sonia Jacobson, assistant for academic affairs and the Honor System’s director, the effectiveness of the code relies on prevention, education and fairness.
“It’s all supposed to be educational, even if it’s punitive,” Jacobson said. “But in reality, it needs to be more than punitive.”
Jacobson said she found the lack of an honor code at Harvard to be a surprise.
“I have heard it doesn’t [have an honor system],” Jacobson said. “It seems crazy for a school so venerable and old not to.”
A unique feature of Georgetown’s Honor System is its inclusion of a sanction reduction program. The council allows students with minor or mid-level sanctions to apply for a reduction. Students in the program must apologize to the professor involved, attend a remedial seminar and participate in community service or a mentorship program.
“It’s a six-month process [in which] student[s] … work one-on-one with an [Honor Council] board member,” Meredith Kolff (SFS ’13), the co-chair for the program, said. “Basically it’s an opportunity to give back to the university and learn from your mistake.”
By going through this process, students can address the specific circumstances that led to their violation and have the sanction removed from their official transcript within two years.
Brian Goggin (SFS ’14), chair of policy and procedure for the Honor Council, added that students who are honest when confronted about their violation are not subject to a full hearing because they do not have to wait for the council to gather research.
“Not every student has a full hearing. In cases where the students are upfront, the investigating officer will present the option of an expedited case,” Goggin said.
Reynolds said that such features of the system are included to ensure students receive the fairest possible treatment.
“When pressure, time constraints and fear of failure coalesce, students will sometimes be tempted to submit someone else’s work as their own,” he said. “But these occasions are rare, and [the] Honor System handles them fairly and with compassion and serves as an educative reminder that the Georgetown community is built on trust and a common pursuit of truth.”
The Honor System also aims to prevent cheating at its roots.
“We get the word out to students about effective ways to not cheat [and] to do proper citations,” said Tyler Holl (COL ’13), the Honor Council’s outreach co-chair.
The committee reaches out to both faculty and students in order to involve the whole community in upholding academic integrity.
“One of the major events that we do is … go to freshman halls and give presentations. It’s a good [question-and-answer session] for the new members of our community,” Holl added.
Holl said he would like to see a feature of the training that requires students to acknowledge that they understand how the Honor System operates.
“One place where we could grow is if we had something on the tutorial [saying] that not knowing that it was cheating is not an acceptable excuse,” he said. “We hear that a lot in hearings.”
Reynolds stressed that the code is designed as a reminder that the academic community is founded on trust.
“The very fabric of the academic life is woven out of integrity and the presumption of honesty,” he said. “In the end, I think the Honor System reminds all of us that we are privileged to be a part of an institution like Georgetown and that we owe it our very best.”