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Letters | 7 Ware Street

On My Honor

May-June 2015

Harvard undergraduates now have an honor code—spelling out expectations of integrity in their academic work, as legislated by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) last spring. This fall, they will have to “affirm their awareness” (emphasis added) of the code, but not take an oath to accept the values it embodies or conform to its standards—see harvardmag.com/honorcode-15. (Whatever their position on the code’s merits, students are bound by its standards, much as they operate subject to civil and criminal law in the larger society.) Entering freshmen and sophomores will also write briefly about academic integrity.

The honor code, in the making since 2010 (and given greater urgency during the 2012-2013 academic-misconduct investigation and ensuing punishment of dozens of students for impermissible collaboration on a take-home final exam) was never going to be punitive. For example, students will not be compelled, or asked, to report on apparent violations by their peers. The language about affirming awareness of the code, delicately drafted during the past year in response to some professors’ objections to any kind of oath, and questions about the efficacy of the measures enacted (see harvardmag.com/honorcode), makes the code, its student-faculty honor board—and its encouragements to faculty members to raise such issues in class—an effort to alter the culture on campus. The true aim of creating a code in an age of cut-and-paste and collaborative assignments, its proponents explain, is to prompt explicit understanding of previously implicit assumptions about norms within an academic community.

This is real progress. But the single best opportunity to foster those conversations came during the lamentable events of 2012-2013, when more than 100 students were ensnared in an Administrative Board investigation of their behavior. At least one House master held forums to air the issues; presumably resident tutors, departmental leaders, and others did, too. But no community conversations for freewheeling discussion of academic expectations among professors and students were convened: by the administration, FAS, or even students themselves or their Undergraduate Council.

In choosing to direct so much of the discussion into formal channels (committee deliberations, faculty meetings, and legislation), an important teaching moment was lost. Such forums would have been risky, to be sure—but at worst, too few people would have attended. At best, the conversation could have been more organic, more vivid, and, in all likelihood, more meaningful for advancing a healthy College academic culture.

~ John S. Rosenberg, Editor

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