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The Honor Code works at H-SC, but it won’t save Harvard

by: Alexander C. Cartwright ’13 & Dr. Jennifer Dirmeyer
PUBLISHED: 7 September 2012 No Comment

(Ed.: Morrison: *please excuse a printing/editing error in the print edition, Dr. Dirmeyer’s co-authorship was accidentally omitted)


The Wall Street Journal reports that the Harvard College Administrative Board is investigating the possibility that 125 students “improperly collaborated” on an exam last spring[i]. While the administration hopes that an honor code can save the academic integrity of the college for whom “Veritas”, the Latin for truth, is the motto, critics- especially the Harvard student body according to the Harvard Crimson- remain skeptical that signing a piece of paper will suddenly imbue cheaters with integrity[ii].


They’re right.  Harvard can’t fix its problem with an honor code, not because its students aren’t honest, but because they don’t expect anyone else to be.


According to research by Donald L. McCabe, students at schools with an Honor Code- typically a student-enforced pledge to avoid cheating- cheat less than there counterparts elsewhere.[iii]  However, Honor Codes don’t always work.  In fact, while the University of Virginia has one of the most strict honor codes on record, its own magazine describes a lack of respect for the institution, reporting that students “appear reluctant to report violations of the Honor Code. In a sense, recent surveys indicate it has become something of a dishonor among some students to uphold the Honor Code by informing on a classmate.”[iv]


McCabe believes that the success of an honor code depends on a “culture of academic integrityi” but economic theory suggests that it’s a matter of expectations.  In other words, the honor code makes for a successful culture as much as the culture makes for a successful honor code.


Under the peer enforced Honor Code system, because the rule followers are the rule enforcers, students’ principle variable in determining the costs and benefits to cheating is derived from their perception of other student’s behavior. That is, students will judge the risk involved in cheating by judging how his peers calculate the risk of cheating, and then minimize their own risk and maximize reward by taking risks at the level he assumes others are.


When a student perceives that there is a high probability his peers will report him for cheating, he will tend to cheat less in an effort not to get caught. Once this individual cheats less, the lower cheating level is observed by others and contributes to a lower aggregate level of cheating lower, which further encourages the original student to cheat even less. These effects feedback off of each other until a steady low-cheating equilibrium is reached, which we observe at schools that have ‘strong honor codes.’


Unfortunately, the feedback loop can go the other way, too.  If a student enters a college with mostly “cheater” types not only are the costs of cheating very low, encouraging fellow “cheater” types to cheat, but also the benefits of cheating (or the costs of not cheating) are very high, encouraging “honest” types to cheat.  This leads more students to cheat than would normally cheat, creating a culture of dishonesty as, apparently, happened in at least one “Introduction to Congress” course at Harvard.


The success of the honor code, then, depends on the expectations that students have of their peers’ behavior, which is why schools with successful honor codes must invest considerable resources into programs that impact how the Honor Code is perceived. Here that’s why here at Hampden-Sydney College, new students participate in small group discussions led by peers for about 2 hours before a completely silent 3 hour signing ceremony during which all students sign the pledge- one by one- in front of their peers.  It appears to be working: our school reports very low grade-inflation and frequently permits unsupervised exams. There are often fewer than 10 trials per year, only 8 in the 2011/12 academic year. Most importantly, the students at Hampden-Sydney will testify that it works.


Will it work at Harvard?  The answer, at the moment is, no.  Because the students at Harvard do not think it can.   A point worth noting for those students fortunate enough to study at an institution with a working honor code; it is far easier to maintain a culture of integrity than to build one.


(Alex Cartwright is also the Hampden-Sydney Student Court Chairman)

[i] “Can an honor code prevent cheating at Harvard?

By JUSTIN POPE and LINDSEY ANDERSON, Associated Press Writers. CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP)


[ii] ZACHARY S. PODOLSKY, “Problem Set Problem: Cheating.” The Academia Published: Thursday, December 05, 2002. The Harvard Crimson.


[iii] McCabe, Donald L. Linda Klebe Trevino, Kenneth D. Butterfield. “Cheating in Academic Institutions: A Decade of Research.”  Ethics and Behavior.  Vol. 11 No. 3 (2001). Pp. 219-232.


[iv] Coy Barefoot. “The Evolution of Honor: Enduring Principle, Changing Times.” The University of Virginia Magazine. Spring 2008.

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