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Trust me

A wise man once told me that “you don’t get to Duke by deferring to existing realities or received ideas.” He continued “this place is always envisioning the most valuable or interesting thing that a University could become.”

That guy was Dick Brodhead, in his address at the Class of 2013 convocation. And considering that my view of his address was entirely blocked by a giant concrete pillar, I feel it’s appropriate to get my money’s worth from his invitation. So I’ve got a challenge for him.

While I was abroad, a friend from Davidson College explained to me how finals week works at his school. There are no scheduled exams; instead, finals are put in envelopes by a professor and then picked up and taken by students at a time of their choosing during the exam period. The university, in other words, trusts students with not sharing the content of the exam with friends who haven’t taken it.

The practicality of this kind of system is hardly up for debate. For students with multiple exams, it allows them to space the exams out evenly so they can give each test proper attention. More importantly, it allows students the ability to take exams when they are ready, which allows exams to measure subject competency rather than the more nebulous ability to study for five exams at once. This is hardly rocket science—my final exam scores at Duke are probably as or more correlated to the number of other exams I’ve had than my actual understanding of the subject matter.

For faculty, too, the system would have benefits: they’d get to grade exams in chunks rather than, for the poor souls who have to give exams the day before grades are due, having to grade 150 tests in 24 hours.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not the first person to have this idea. In fact, in 2003, Honor Council Chair Robert McDonald told DSG that his Council’s ultimate goal would be to establish this kind of system at Duke. Nothing was ever done.

When I emailed current Chair Nick Valilis to ask whether the goal remains in place, he told me that “the cheating scandal of Chem 31 and the purported cheating that occurred (in) Dan Ariely’s Behavioral Econ take home final last year point to a student body not ready for the responsibility of being under an honor only policy.”

This confuses cause and effect. Are we really meant to believe that students at Davidson are inherently more honorable and trustworthy than their counterparts here at Duke? Common sense suggests that it is precisely the faith their administration places in them that prevents cheating from occurring. And if you don’t have common sense, take a look at the study published in the Journal of Higher Education in 1999 which finds success in systems where “students sense that they are part of a special community that demands compliance with certain standards in exchange for the many privileges associated with honor codes, such as unproctored exams and self-scheduled exams.”

Where those privileges don’t exist—on an institutional level rather than a class-by-class basis—the honor code immediately loses much of its effect. This is of course not to say no one would cheat if we had self-scheduled exams; surely some people would take advantage of the system. But, in the words of Davidson Honor Council Chair Daniel Keller “we would be naive to think that cheating cannot occur. The very fact that it can is the definition of the trust.” He added that he doesn’t see many cases of cheating arising from the exam system.

President Brodhead, it’s not too late. Professors Donald McCabe and Linda Klebe Trevino—who surveyed more than 14,000 students across the country on this subject—found that universities have and can “develop cultures that instill academic integrity” within just a few years, provided they display an organizational commitment to doing so.

But that cannot happen so long as we forgo practical initiatives like this one, solely out of fear.

The self-scheduled exam is arguably the perfect way to turn over a new leaf, since it is both scalable and relatively low-risk. Duke should install a pilot program in which we maintain proctors in designated exam-taking rooms, so that the only way students would be even be able to cheat is by revealing answers to friends who haven’t taken the exams yet (something they would have little incentive to do), rather than by using a textbook or searching the internet for their own exam.

Once this system was in place for a few years, hopefully fostering a “culture of integrity,” it could be made more flexible, with students allowed to pick not just the time but also the place they took their exams. It would be a type of university-wide challenge.

President Brodhead, if you’re still wondering about the most valuable thing a university can become, I think you need look no further than a healthy academic community in which we can trust each other.

Only when our administration takes the honor code seriously will students begin to do the same.

Jeremy Ruch is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Wednesday.


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