The mettle of honor codes

The issue of an honor code has featured prominently in campus discussion recently. The other day, I took part in a panel discussion to assess Lake Forest College’s proposed Honor Code. It was an interesting forum in which any student could voice his or her mind about the topic. Since this is an issue that could potentially shape the future of the student population at the College, I thought it would be important to review the proposal (if for no better reason than for my own education) and to compare it to versions at comparable institutions. I summed up all of my thoughts in an editorial that appeared in The Stentor about a month ago and is restated here.

What is an honor code?

The idea of an honor code is somewhat common among colleges and universities. The majority of these documents have students pledge to uphold academic honesty and turn in those who do not comply with the code. A governing body (for Lake Forest it potentially will be called the Honor Council) of students oversees the handling of cases of dishonesty. The lengths and details of codes vary from school to school. Knox College goes into great detail about the members of the Honor Council and their specific duties. Lawrence University meticulously lists each academic violation and the penalty it entails. St. Olaf’s Honor System seems most serious to those unwilling to sign the pledge. If left unsigned, a student will be contacted by a member of the Honor Council and, “asked to indicate the nature of his/her suspicions.”

Lake Forest’s proposed Honor Code leaves signing as a purely optional act. It also does not encourage Foresters to snitch on each other. It only makes the broad-sweeping statement that, “Rather, students, as well as other members of the community, are expected to raise concerns with those who would violate provisions of the Honor Code.”

Through talking to people, I have heard complaints that the proposed code is too lengthy. As mentioned before, many other colleges go into detail about violations and offenses. However, Lake Forest already has its policy spelled out in the student handbook. The proposed Honor Code basically lays out the values of the institution, places emphasis on a sense of community and establishes a foundation for the Honor Council, which it hopes will eventually take over judicial hearings from Conduct Board. After reviewing the policy at several other schools, it seems as though ours is of adequate length.

What does an honor code mean to Lake Forest?

Cheating happens at Lake Forest College. According to the newspaper’s sources, it happens a lot. While the proposed Honor Code is not iron-fisted like many other colleges, it does bring up the issue. The question that I, along with many other students, ask is whether signing a piece of paper actually will reduce academic dishonesty. Several pieces of information that will be brought up in the next section might shed some light on this idea.

An interesting objective of the proposed honor code is creating a stronger sense of community. Such an emphasis is left out of almost all of the other documents that I looked at. Given the lack of traditions and weak sense of cohesion among the student body, this seems like a prudent course of action. But again, will simply agreeing to uphold an honor code foster a better sense of community?

Will it work?

To me, it seems as though most of the issues raised in the honor code already are stated in the Student Handbook. Schools like Monmouth College, which also does not have an honor code, have similar rules of academic integrity; they simply are not called an “honor code.”

An experiment by S.R. Sommers and P.C. Ellsworth in 2001 examined the issues of racial prejudices in the courtroom setting. In short, the researchers found that people will make racist judgments without even knowing it. But, if reminded of the fact that race could play a role in their decisions, the members of the jury are careful to correct for any prejudices they might not have taken into account otherwise.

The correlations from this study might be transferable to the issue of the honor code. It could be that by merely signing one’s name and acknowledging that academic honesty and community are important, one takes them into account throughout college. Even if the signer does not wholeheartedly throw him or herself behind the code, he or she acknowledges that these issues were made salient. Maybe that’s all this school needs.

Lake Forest’s website points to Don McCabe’s ongoing national college survey. Schools without honor codes reported that cheating occurred 17 percent of the time. Schools with honor codes reported six percent.

Given that most of the principles in the proposed honor code are already in the Student Handbook and the code decidedly is modest compared to most other schools, I think that the adoption of such an honor code could not harm Lake Forest College in any way. Its only failure would be maintaining the status quo.

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