The independent news organization of Duke University

The cost of losing our honor

Last year, an introductory economics class had a midterm exam, worth a large part of the final grade, with an extensive take-home portion. Under the Honor Code, the students were asked to complete the exam within time restraints and not to consult certain materials or other students. After the test was graded, the professor discovered that cheating on this portion of the exam had been so widespread the he had to disregard the results entirely.

This incident represents a breakdown in the honor code system, which is based entirely on trust. The professor trusted the students to abide by the Honor Code. Students abused that trust, and the code failed to protect academic integrity. When academic integrity is not protected, it is the honest students who suffer. If the Duke community is not willing to support the Honor Code fully, we must replace it with a system that works.

As the Academic Integrity Council begins integrating the old Honor Code into the new Community Standard, it is time to face the implications of being a university governed by an honor code. An honor code places heavy demands on every member of the community, and if we are not prepared to accept these responsibilities, we would be better off without it. Every incident of large-scale cheating diminishes the credibility of the honor system. A few more exams thrown out, and the Honor Code might not have any credibility left.

What is the alternative to an honor code? If we cannot base our academic system on trust, we must base it on security. At a university without an honor code, the students must earn their teachers' trust by having their every academic endeavor thoroughly monitored. This sort of system, the academic equivalent of an Orwellian police state, runs contrary to the spirit of university education, which should value individual exploration and not spend its time looking over its students' shoulders.

However, this system protects academic integrity absolutely, without an honor system's reliance on trust, which students often fail to merit. Academic integrity absolutely must be protected. Cheating makes our evaluation systems meaningless and undermines the value of the University's only product--education. Therefore, any measures to combat cheating must be evaluated by their effectiveness first and their desirability second.

I would love to attend a university where the students had no desire to cheat. Obviously, I don't. I would rather attend a university where the students themselves protect integrity than one governed by paranoia. But if the Honor Code does not provide that protection, I would rather have every exam proctored and every assignment monitored, than allow dishonesty to erode the integrity of my education.

How can we avoid a system of constant surveillance, without writing cheaters a blank check? The Honor Code gives us a way, but at the cost of laying heavy responsibilities on every member of the Duke community. If we fail to acknowledge and respect those responsibilities, we make the honor system a joke, ignoring cheaters and placing honest students in a dilemma where they must either follow the lead of their less scrupulous peers or try to compete against an unfair advantage.

There are two responsibilities laid on students by the Honor Code: not cheating and not tolerating those who do. Both are necessary to the successful operation of the honor system. It is the failure of otherwise honest students to honor the second responsibility that has crippled the honor system in the past. No one wants to turn in a friend or classmate to face a charge as serious as academic dishonesty, but this is the only method of accountability available in an honor system.

Are we ready to assume the burden of supporting an honor system, to the point of serving as witnesses against cheaters in our classes, in our dorms, in our circles of friends? The prospect is neither easy nor pleasant, but if we do not accept it, we must accept omnipresent surveillance to prevent pandemic dishonesty. If we, as students, fail to protect academic integrity, we must have someone protect it for us.

Russell Williams is a Pratt junior. His column appears every third Wednesday.


Share and discuss “The cost of losing our honor” on social media.