Randall Balmer: Whatever Happened to Honor at College?

Sunday, December 07, 2014
As reported in the pages of the Valley News, my course at Dartmouth this past term, Sports, Ethics & Religion, was wracked by a cheating scandal. Midway through the term, I discovered that 43 students, out of a class in excess of 280, had falsified their attendance; one of the course requirements is class attendance and participation, which includes having completed the readings assigned for that day’s class.

The Academic Honor Principle at Dartmouth College is clear. “The Faculty of Dartmouth College, in recognizing the responsibility of students for their own education, assumes intellectual honesty and integrity in the performance of academic assignments, both in the classroom and outside,” it reads in part. “Each student upon enrollment at Dartmouth College accepts this responsibility with the understanding that any student who submits work which is not his or her own violates the purpose of the College and is subject to disciplinary actions, up to and including suspension and separation.”

I had heard reports of cheating on the mid-term examination (professors, according to the honor principle, are not supposed to proctor examinations, although two teaching assistants were present to administer the exam). Shortly thereafter, I began to suspect that students, with the collusion of their friends, were falsely registering their attendance by means of electronic devices — “clickers”; I don’t know a more dignified term — that I had used for the first time this term in an attempt to monitor attendance in what would otherwise have been an unwieldy course.

Although my impulse was simply to confront the students and work out a kind of plea bargain, conversations with the head of judicial affairs, who in turn consulted with the office of general counsel, revealed that was not possible. College policies and the honor principle itself mandated that the matter be referred to the college’s judicial process.

That is where the matter stands at this writing. Students can either admit to the charges or contest them (the forensic evidence against them is overwhelming). Nearly half of the students implicated in the scandal have come to me and apologized abjectly. I’m not naive enough to suppose that these confessions are entirely innocent of self-interest; I still have the authority to assign grades in the course independent of the judicial findings. But many of the protestations of remorse are quite compelling, and the head of judicial affairs reports that more than a dozen accomplices have come forward to confess their complicity and submit voluntarily to the judicial process, even though I had no evidence against them.

The whole affair is sad and regrettable. Dozens of students will very likely have a stain on their college transcripts. A level of trust between professor and student, so necessary for effective teaching and learning, has been broken. Dartmouth’s reputation as a first-class educational institution (which it is) has taken a hit, at least in the short term.

If there is a silver lining here, however, it lies in the fact that the whole notion of honor and integrity in education has become a matter for discussion, both on campus and beyond. The coincidence of the Dartmouth incident with a similar scandal at Duke University and a long-running athletic department scandal at the University of North Carolina has called the idea of an honor principle — and, more broadly, academic integrity — into question.

Much of the discussion, however, has missed the point. Some have blamed the situation on the size of the class, a criticism I vigorously reject. I’ve been in this business long enough to recognize that such comments more often than not are born of jealousy. Look, so-and-so has a lot of students; must be an undemanding course. (For the record, the course requirements included a midterm and essay-based final examination, a paper, almost daily quizzes and the reading of seven books and 22 articles — all within a 10-week term.) Besides, by any metric, academic study in the humanities is waning, and it seems a pity not to capitalize on student interest in a course so thoroughly grounded in the humanities as a way of introducing them to the delights and the challenges of the life of the mind.

The Honor Principle

Caviling about class size mutes the larger and much more important conversation about the notion of academic honor. At Dartmouth, the faculty adopted the Academic Honor Principle in 1962, about the same time that other universities, including many Ivy League schools, were doing the same. The timing, I think, is significant. Postwar America was still very much enamored of the notion of honor, which had been forged in part on the battlefields of World War II among those Tom Brokaw called “the Greatest Generation.”

If “honor” was in part a military construct, it took a huge hit during the Vietnam War — not because of the soldiers themselves but because of duplicitous politicians and government officials. Mendacity reached new heights (or depths) during the Nixon administration and the Watergate scandal. Lyndon Johnson may have lied to us about Vietnam, but Richard Nixon lied about pretty much everything. (Jimmy Carter sought to restore trust in government and the presidency, but by then the damage was done, perhaps irreparably. Trust had given way to betrayal, which in turn gave rise to cynicism.)

In 1972, my friend James Heffernan, now retired as professor of English at Dartmouth, chaired a committee charged with evaluating the Academic Honor Principle 10 years after its inception. The committee sent questionnaires to the students, and of the 429 who responded, anonymously, 63 percent admitted to having violated the honor code at least once, including taking library books without checking them out. Bracketing out that offense, 55 percent admitted to clear-cut instances of cheating — plagiarism, exams, improperly helping others — and 42 percent confessed to multiple offenses.

As the French say, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The problem with an academic honor principle is that the notion of honor has very little currency in contemporary culture. Consider Wall Street — or Congress, for that matter. Corporate executives think nothing of breaking unions or outsourcing jobs in the interest of increased profits, even if it deprives families, some of them long-term employees, of a living wage. Does anyone seriously believe that Mitch McConnell or Harry Reid or John Boehner lies awake at night worrying about whether or not he has acquitted himself with honor?

Perhaps in light of these changing historical and cultural circumstances, something as anachronistic as an honor principle is simply too much of a burden or an imposition on college students. That is not to exonerate those who are guilty. Not at all. But how can we expect students to comport themselves honorably if honor ranks well below such regnant “values” as success, affluence and power? Given the opportunity, and with little chance of discovery, what student these days wouldn’t trade the nebulous notion of honor for worldly or economic advantage?

Retaining Honor

What to do? At Dartmouth, the honor principle replaced a system of proctors, who monitored the taking of exams. It seems unlikely that the college will return to the proctoring of exams; it’s simply too labor-intensive. But there are other, very practical steps that might be taken, ones that will minimize the incidence of cheating. One is something called a lock-down browser or a “kill switch” that prevents students, once logged into an exam, from switching out to consult files or do Google searches. Technical measures are not the entire answer, and any student who wants to cheat will find a way to do so, but we can take measures to make it more difficult.

If the honor principle is retained, we must — as parents, educators and as a society — pay more careful attention to both teaching and modeling honorable behavior. The problem with plagiarizing a paper or cheating on an exam is that it makes it easier to take the next step: padding an expenses account, fudging on taxes, marital infidelity and so on. The metaphors here are as varied as they are instructive: slippery slope, vortex of dishonesty or what I call creeping incrementalism — one, little, seemingly harmless compromise at a time.

Education, especially a liberal arts education, is more than mere professional preparation. We need not only to introduce students to the life of the mind, we need to instill the importance of integrity.

Educators like to talk about teachable moments. For both faculty and students, here at Dartmouth and beyond, this is a teachable moment.

Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is chair of the Religion Department and director of the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College.