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A commitment to honor

Professor James Bonk recently announced to his Chemistry 83 class that homework would no longer be self-graded due to reports of cheating on the assignments. When I heard the news, I had to wonder which would be more common: students indignantly wondering, “Who cheated?” or students indignantly demanding, “Who told?”

This is not to suggest that I had any firsthand knowledge of cheating. It had just been a tad suspicious that the class average for homework assignments was nearly perfect (despite staggeringly low attendance rates), while that for the open-note, multiple-choice tests lingered in the low-to-mid eighties. I’ve always liked to think that the simple act of giving someone your trust motivates him or her to live up to it. But in the case of my chemistry class, Professor Bonk’s trust was met instead with cynicism and opportunism. And sadly, it appears that even those who didn’t cheat felt powerless to do anything about it. (Only one student complained about cheating—and not until late into the semester.)

Now is a crucial moment for the Duke Community Standard. The Honor Council and the Academic Integrity Council have been doing serious thinking about its policy-level implementation. One of the most problematic questions facing administrators is how to effectively translate the “non-acceptance” clause of the code into tangible regulations about students’ obligations. At the moment, students are required (by somewhat draconian language in the Bulletin of Duke University) to provide a signed, written statement to a faculty member or the Dean of Students when they have knowledge of cheating. What we’ve learned is that this simply does not happen. The problem, then, is in determining how to create a climate that is intolerant of cheating when at the moment dishonesty seems to be so widely accepted.

There are a number ways to look at this dilemma. Optimists would say that a culture of honor could be achieved at Duke if the right policies were implemented. Perhaps framing the “obligation to report” in less severe bureaucratic terms would decrease the feeling that it pits students against each other by turning them into “snitches.” Furthermore, programs that increase the visibility of the Community Standard’s importance could lead to a more ethically minded campus.

However, pessimists would be skeptical of the claim that changes in policy can lead to meaningful steps toward a community of integrity. They would argue that such a community does not—and in the foreseeable future, cannot—exist here. Duke, they would say, is primarily pre-professionally oriented. As such, classes are not so much places of intellectual exploration as they are obstacles to a degree. And the “community”—cleaved by divisions such as those between schools (Pratt and Trinity) and among greek groups—is really just a set of individuals, each seeking maximum rewards for minimum effort.

Obviously, there are a lot of questions to be addressed. But there are also some things we know for sure. No university can expect legitimacy without a commitment to honor and integrity. And while we might expect the average person to accept instances of cheating, Duke does not purport to enroll—or produce—“average” people. I hope it’s clear to those participating in this debate that any honor code without a serious “non-acceptance” component is meaningless. Unless we require students to respond in some way to cheating—and back up this obligation with the threat of sanctions—then we are tacitly fostering a climate that accepts dishonesty. However, we probably do need to address the current policy to make it more palatable for students who are faced with hard decisions about the right thing to do.

It’s scary to think that the pessimistic outlook might be right—and that in pursuing honor, we will find out things about the Duke community we would prefer not to know. Nevertheless, we owe it to ourselves to remain committed to integrity, whatever that commitment is determined to mean.

David Kleban is a Trinity sophomore. His column appears every other Tuesday.

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