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Harvard College

A Harvard Honor Code?


Jay M. Harris, dean of undergraduate education

Jay M. Harris, dean of undergraduate education

Photograph by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) discussed a draft honor code for Harvard College at its February 4 meeting, its first of the new semester. Dean of undergraduate education Jay M. Harris, who chairs the committee on academic integrity (read this earlier account of its work), presented the draft, which the committee had developed. College dean-designate Rakesh Khurana has served as a member of the committee; Harris noted during his remarks that Khurana had worked with students to create the initial draft last summer and autumn, before it was circulated for comment among and revision by the committee members as a whole and other interested, expert parties. (When Khurana was introduced, he received very sustained applause from his colleagues.)

As circulated for faculty review, the draft addresses the motivation for adopting a code. The language contains an underlying statement of values, the code itself, and the affirmation of integrity that would be required of Harvard College students. Although the proposed code advances in the wake of the investigation of undergraduate misconduct during the prior academic year (when dozens of students were sanctioned for collaborating on a final examination in the spring of 2012), it was prompted, earlier, by concerns about evolving behaviors—concerning online research, seemingly relaxed standards of attribution, and other conduct—among students brought up on Google and Bing searches, cut-and-paste tools, and more casual conventions of blogging and shared communications by social media.

• Motivation. The proposed code, according to the draft, "recognizes and promotes the fact that learning and the advancement of knowledge depend on a commitment to honesty." The code would be intended to "strengthen the dedication to academic integrity" of "all members of the College"—a point that has proved somewhat contentious, because it requires an affirmation of integrity by students, but no comparable action affirming professors' responsibilities (see below). The introductory language addresses this concern, at least in part, by calling for "serious and sustained discussion about academic integrity" in "academic departments, individual classrooms, the Houses, and the Yard," so that everyone in the College understands "excellence in scholarship as inseparable from excellence in character."

• Values. The draft language on values reads, in part:

We—the academic community of Harvard College, including the faculty and students—view integrity as the basis for intellectual discovery, artistic creation, independent scholarship, and meaningful collaboration. We thus hold honesty—in the representation of our work and in our interactions with teachers, advisers, peers, and students—as the foundation of our community.

• The honor code. The language of the proposed code reads:

Members of the Harvard College community commit themselves to producing academic work with 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 our ideas, discoveries, interpretations, and conclusions. Cheating on exams or problems sets, plagiarizing or misrepresenting the idea 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.

• The student affirmation of integrity. According to the draft language, students would be "expected to make an Affirmation of Integrity on each piece of academic work that is submitted for review or assessment" [italics added]—presumably including problem sets, quizzes, papers, and examinations. In prefatory remarks to the faculty, Harris said that that italicized passage was subject to further discussion and review (see below), and should not be a focus of deliberation just yet. As drafted, the affirmation reads:

I attest to the honesty of my academic work and affirm that it conforms to the standards of the Harvard College Honor Code.

• Student-faculty honor board. The final section in the version of the draft discussed with students the week before (during the first week of classes in the new term), and posted by The Harvard Crimson on January 28, was not included in the draft circulated to the faculty for its February 5 meeting. According to Dean Harris, the decision was made to separate faculty review of the language of the code itself from the proposed new administering agency, following three discussion sessions with students and further deliberation with the Faculty Council. He noted in the FAS meeting that if the faculty should choose not to proceed with adopting the code, the Honor Board that would hear about alleged violations would be moot, and so it seemed sensible to separate the components during this initial airing with the faculty. The description of the Honor Board shared with students was:

An Honor Board with equal representation of one-half students and of one-half faculty and Administrators will be appointed to uphold the standards of academic integrity at Harvard College and to address any actions that appear to violate the Honor Code. To ensure engagement with the Honor Code, and participation in an educational process central to addressing instances of academic dishonesty, student representation is essential. The selection process should focus on nominations and interviews rather than popular elections. The process should recruit students from across the entire spectrum of the College, including those who might be less inclined to engage in any competitive election.

The Honor Board shall be responsible for reviewing any apparent violations of the Honor Code. In situations where it is unclear whether a case falls under the purview of the Honor Board or the existing Administrative Board [which does not include student members], the Dean of Harvard College (or the Dean's designee) will decide the appropriate venue for discussion and review.

Developing an Honor Code: The Background

As Harris had previously reported to the faculty, during the 2012-2013 investigation and punishment of dozens of undergraduates for academic misconduct on a final examination, the academic-integrity committee hoped to shift attitudes and institutional practices at Harvard from policing student behavior and "surveillance," to an environment of trust and community among teachers and students focused on learning and achievement.

Reintroducing the topic on February 4, he reviewed the history. Technology has certainly changed the way students gather information and conduct at least some aspects of their research. Teaching has moved, too, from an era where the paramount expectation was that a student's work was hers alone, to many cases in which collaboration is encouraged or even expected as a principal means of learning and of completing projects—p edagogically desirable, but presenting a less bright line than governed student behavior in the past. (One issue that arose during the academic misconduct investigation in 2012-2013 was that the course's expectations regarding collaboration had apparently changed between the term-time assignments and the final take-home examination.)

In this shifting environment, Harris said, knowing what practices and rules to specify had become more challenging for professors and resident deans alike. Administrative Board proceedings provided one set of data on apparent norms and their violation, but hardly a complete one—and so Harris's committee had commissioned a survey on academic behavior. Although, as previously reported, student participation was insufficient to provide wholly reliable data, the survey did reveal student interest in achieving some clarity on matters of academic integrity—and specific student concerns such as cheating on problem sets.

Although students have been provided with enhanced guidance on citation policies and related matters, the committee felt there was inadequate discussion about academic integrity and ethics overall, and about the boundaries for appropriate collaboration on academic work. Committee members' research led them to the conclusion that cheating is diminished (not eliminated) at schools that have honor codes—apparently because, if properly implemented, such codes prompt discussion of academic integrity and make the underlying values a part of a community's culture.

Based upon that work, Harris told the faculty in February 2013, the committee decided to pursue "components of an honor code," excluding the requirement for students to report on violations of community standards by their peers. He acknowledged then that even a modified honor code would not be a "panacea," and hinted at a student-faculty administrative body to adjudicate cases. The code and board would be accompanied by new forms of "cultural interventions" to educate students about academic integrity, before they enroll, during the new freshmen's opening days, and in House-based discussions. All would aim to "educate students into our expectations."

At the faculty's tense April 2 meeting—dominated by the news of investigation of resident tutors' e-mail accounts, in connection with the academic-misconduct proceedings—Harris presented a summary report on the "modified honor code." As he had previously suggested, it would include a statement of values, a "declaration of integrity" for students to affirm their adherence to those values, and opportunities throughout their four years to learn about those values. Harris said then that the code would not call for students to monitor one another during exams, but would suggest creation of a student-faculty judicial board to hear academic-dishonesty cases (now the realm of the Administrative Board, which does not have student members).

In the ensuing discussion, one faculty member noted that a student pledge does not address professors' teaching obligations, and the 2012 cheating case itself raised questions about classroom rigor, the nature of final examinations, and the instructions that students are given.

The February 4 Discussion

Following Harris's introduction—a nd his caveat about setting aside the language suggesting that every piece of academic work submitted for review be subject to the affirmation of integrity, because the efficacy of such a mandate is in question—he turned to a brief discussion on the issues the proposed honor code raises. He reminded colleagues that the committee hoped to prompt professors to be very clear with students about their expectations (on collaborative work, for example) and their reasons for those expectations, within the particular characteristics of each discipline. (Sciences may encourage much more collaborative problem-solving than humanities courses focused on papers, for instance.) The goal, he reiterated, was a community built on integrity, rather than a system of monitoring compliance with rules in the student handbook.

Mallinckrodt professor of physics Melissa Franklin, who is also chair of the department, arose to ask whether there ought not to be an honor code for faculty members, too—a contract with students in which, for example, the faculty members would not pass off as their own work problem sets taken from another author's textbook, or another scholar's lecture notes.

Harris noted that problem sets are a particular challenge. Faculty members who use the same problems yearly ought to be aware that there are likely full sets of answers available online. That does not excuse students who use such answers, but faculty members ought to take the temptation into account. He had heard the argument that problem sets are learning exercises, not assessment exercises (like an exam), and cautioned that looking the other way when students cheat on a problem set creates behavior that is difficult to root out come exam time. The implicit compact with students, he indicated, is that faculty members promise to offer their students the best learning prompts, problem sets, and so on—and that in so doing, they deal realistically with temptations that are put before students in the online world. (Franklin hastened to assure colleagues that she did not oppose using existing problems sets in exercises to help students learn scientific fundamentals.)

Rabb professor of anthropology Arthur Kleinman, who is also professor of medical anthropology and of psychiatry, addressed the language Harris had set aside, concerning a possible student affirmation of integrity on every piece of work submitted for assessment. He said that risked turning the ethical concern—that students and faculty members live in a community of academic integrity—into a legalistic problem, thereby undercutting the moral imperative. The procedure reminded him, he said, of the era of loyalty oaths. He was loath to see any process that would turn the work of building a moral community of scholars and learners into a legal process, and urged that the language in question be eliminated.

Harris sympathized with that instinct—but noted that the academic environment is already subject to legalistic rules and procedures (as in the student handbook); realistically, that was the state of affairs. The challenge was to establish boundaries, so that the reliance on quasi-procedure did not undercut the larger purpose of building a community of academic integrity. Prompts such as having students affirm the integrity of their work at the outset (of their Harvard education, it has been suggested, or a course) have been shown to have a positive effect on behavior and compliance, according to pertinent research.

McKay professor of computer science Harry Lewis asked whether the honor code would proceed on the basis of asking or expecting such affirmations, or of requiring them? Harris said the latter.

With that, the day's discussion came to an end, with further faculty consideration likely at an unspecified date.

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