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Professors sound off on honor survey

There's nothing worse than trying to build trust and honor in a disillusioned community. But now that a survey has revealed higher-than-expected rates of academic dishonesty, that's exactly the task faced by the University.

"The results of this survey, if not surprising, are certainly disappointing," said Dean of Trinity College Robert Thompson. "If the fundamental values of a university are integrity and trust, then we don't have it, or at least not to the level that we need it."

With nearly half of the student body admitting to some form of academic dishonesty, and preliminary survey results showing that faculty are making far less of an effort to curb cheating than other schools, the University is certainly in a conundrum. At present, one of the biggest questions facing the community is whether anti-cheating actions will only further weaken the honor code, or whether they are necessary in light of the rampant academic dishonesty.

"We're not at a consensus point...," said Thompson. "We really are at a phase where we have to get to the next level,"

Thompson noted several survey results particularly worried him, including the high level of cheating and the apparent unwillingness of students to report academic dishonesty. He also expressed concern that, according to the survey, many students do not consider certain actions, like unauthorized collaboration or falsifying lab data, serious forms of cheating.

Faculty also expressed alarm at the current state of honor at Duke.

Daniel Gauthier, director of undergraduate studies for the physics department, echoed many of Thompson's worries. He highlighted the efforts his department makes to curb cheating, including spacing students far apart during testing and not allowing the use of calculators. Gauthier said that these efforts are necessary in light of the "lack of moral backbone the students have shown."

"Department-wide, we already do quite a bit," he said. "But there's not a whole lot we can do."

Gauthier noted that his department has taken steps to create labs where there is neither a right or wrong answer, taking away the incentive for those 45 percent of students who admit to falsifying lab data. "It takes the pressure away," he said.

Van Hillard, director of the undergraduate writing program, echoed Gauthier's sentiments that pressure often leads to acts of dishonesty by students.

"With plagiarism, I know people often find themselves in what they believe to be dire straits," he said. "It troubles me that students, for whatever reason, go ahead and do these things because they feel they have to."

Hillard added that Academic Writing, the new writing program under Curriculum 2000, will be better suited to addressing issues of writing and academic dishonesty on the whole.

The division of opinion on the issue of honor at Duke is exemplified by these two men. While Gauthier blames most of cheating on the students, Hillard places more responsibility on the faculty.

"Faculty and students exist in a reciprocal relationship in this. Certain faculty are complicit in this with the construction of their courses that makes [cheating] possible, in some cases," said Hillard. "[The level of cheating] may tell us something about the teaching culture around here."

Both Gauthier and Hillard agreed that it is difficult to decide whether increased anti-cheating efforts would only undermine the honor code. Gauthier said he would welcome the removal of such efforts if he thought students were ready for it.

"It's all personal ethics [as far as] what you want to do about it," Gauthier said. "But the fact is we have to start treating the students like children again, and I really don't like that. But it seems like we have no alternative."

Hillard noted the honor code is partly to blame, and its weak language contributes to the problem.

"I believe that a stronger honor code would make these discussions more real and authentic...," he said. "[The honor code] needs to be more effective in terms of its language. It seems very thin."

He added that the self-policing the honor code requires of students may not be the best means of creating academic integrity.

"It places responsibility with the wrong agent," Hillard said. "I can imagine if I were a student it would place me in a bizarre situation."

The idea that students would be unwilling to take the role the current honor code dictates for them was echoed in the survey results, and is another issue Thompson would like to see addressed. Thompson also said he would like to see faculty take a bigger role in the honor code.

"I know from talking to students that they would like to see faculty take time at the beginning of the year to discuss honor code issues and expectations, and I think that's a very reasonable expectation," he said.

To further this end, Thompson said that in his annual letter to faculty members at the beginning of next year, he will urge them to open academic integrity dialogues in their classrooms at the start of the semester, and to explain to students what they expect.

In the end it remains unclear what the next steps in Duke's honor code future will be, but Thompson said he believes the time to make these steps has come, and on this everyone seems to agree.

"Something has to be done," said Gauthier.

But, Thompson added, it remains unclear how strong of an honor code can be created at Duke. "I think the progress we make each year will set [the honor code's] end point," he said.

Hillard noted that the process would certainly not be quick, but a necessary one. He also explained that he believes the honor problem at Duke to be a deep one. He pointed to a virtually unknown statement in the regulations booklet that urges students to respect each other and addresses issues of truth and tolerance. "No one has ever heard of it," he said. "People don't become virtuous out of thin air. They come to it through understanding.


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