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Setting the Standard

“Community” is the motto for the college experience. By now, freshmen at Duke will have been inundated with calls from Duke’s various communities— to apply to professional societies, to try out for singing groups, to run for elected office, to prepare to rush the campus social scene. The groups that comprise our college experience have a powerful impact on our identities. Just consider how we introduce ourselves to one another: “Hi, my name is <X>, I’m from <Y>, I’m majoring in <Z>, and I live with <ABC> group.” We want the world to know us for who we are and who we are not. Marking ourselves by the communities we inhabit—from academics (major), to origin (hometown), to social circles (living groups)—allows us to create points of convergence with and separation from the people around us.

Often, the communities of which we are a part are undergirded by a series of rules. In the classroom, the laws are administered by faculty in the form of requirements. In the fraternity house, the conventions are passed down from nebulous national entities in the guise of traditions. What makes these rules similar is not who made them, but the fact that we didn’t. 

While that may be the case for facets of life at Duke, it is not for the community of which we are all citizens. Irrespective of what we study or where we live, the first identity we forged on this campus was one of a Duke student; an identity co-created by generations of Duke students based on the ethos of mutual respect. Today, these norms are known as the Duke Community Standard —a commitment that all of Duke’s citizens make to the principles of honor and integrity. The Community Standard hardly seems revolutionary; all of us (hopefully) know not to lie, cheat or steal, and we dutifully sign our names beneath the honor code each time we take an exam at Duke. However, many students may be surprised to learn that this test-day chore is a fairly recent addition to Duke’s traditions. Honor codes are certainly a longstanding tradition at universities— William & Mary’s honor code is actually older than the United States—but at Duke, formal commitments to integrity barely predate the current undergraduate population. 

Duke instituted its first honor code in 1993 to formalize a system of academic integrity. Over subsequent years, the university participated in a series of evaluations and surveys on honor in the classroom to assess the culture of ethics on campus. Results indicated that the majority of students did not take the honor code seriously, and believed that cheating was both present and permissible. 

These responses inspired community action, with students leading the way to draft a new honor code called the “Duke Community Standard” that was instituted in 2003. Significant investment into academic integrity programs, policies, and products yielded improvements in undergraduate honor in subsequent years. Follow-up surveys indicated a decline in dishonest behavior on campus, but also highlighted specific gray areas faced by students such as the blurred line between collaboration and individual effort. To bolster ethical practice, students in 2007 revised the Standard by adding the “obligation to act” with the hope that codifying accountability would create a culture of “active” integrity. 

A decade later, integrity on campus has faded into the background for many students, with honor serving as a community default as opposed to a conscious choice. It’s easy to forget the origins of campus traditions, as the rapid turnover of undergraduate students lends itself to a kind of institutional amnesia. But recent incidents ranging from “CopySci 201” to criticisms of the student conduct process suggest that honor at Duke is still a work in progress—one that deserves a larger campus conversation. 

At Duke, that mandate is fulfilled by the Honor Council, a student group dedicated to promoting the values upon which the Community Standard is based. Honor Council doesn’t try cases—that’s the role of the Conduct Board, which does have undergraduate panelists—but instead engages in programming, policy work, and product development related to integrity on campus. Over the years, our work certainly has ebbed and flowed, just like student attitudes. But this is work that must continue—because at Duke, community is a thread that holds us together. Over the course of this year, the Honor Council will be organizing a series of ethics programs around monthly themes ranging from honor in the business world to misconduct in scientific research. The programming will culminate in the Honor Council’s annual “Integrity Week” in the spring, which will celebrate 25 years of honor at Duke. 

Of course, honor is supposed to be a culture and not an event. But we hope that programs like these will be a springboard for broader dialogue about what it means to maintain integrity at Duke and beyond. Institutions are defined by the individuals who inhabit them, leaving it up to us as students to write, follow, and enforce the standards we want our community to follow. 

Come and join us this year for conversations about community and change. 


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