The independent news organization of Duke University

Moral memorials

“Education…is incomplete if it is not braced by ethical and honorable behavior in the life and work of the university’s graduates.”


So remarked Terry Sanford in his annual letter to incoming first-years of the Class of 1984. Sanford is inextricably tied to Duke–the School of Public Policy bears his name, and his famous exhortation for Duke to be a place of “outrageous ambition” is the sentiment underpinning many of the university’s strategic initiatives today. This year marks the Sanford Centennial, which has been celebrated across the university through a series of programs, films, and recognition of “principled leaders” on campus whose values have guided their actions to make this university a better place for all.


This focus on values was integral to Sanford’s views of what a Duke education should be. Indeed, he believed that “while there is no standard set of values for everyone, a lack of attention to honorable values in all personal decisions is indefensible”. Sanford’s focus on integrity in academics arose during a period of “ethical crisis” in higher education, in which many universities abandoned their honor codes. Duke students themselves vetoed the campus honor code in 1965. The challenge in maintaining integrity policies is threefold. First, what constitutes right versus wrong? Most ethically-questionable decisions in college tend to occur not in clear-cut black and white but in the murky middle gray of late nights in Perkins or the final seconds of a final examination. Second, how should students act when observing wrongdoing? The beauty of the college experience is derived from the diversity of its students. Yet each of us hailing from a different corner from the world also bring with us a unique set of values and beliefs. Melding these together to adhere to a common code of ethics is certainly a challenge on a campus as diverse as Duke. Third, there isn’t a “curriculum” for honor. Morality tends to be experiential: we feel when something is right or wrong. Embedding it within the discipline can also be challenging – Sanford recognized a perceived conflict between the rational, “value-free inquiry” and “value-free life” within the dispassionate world of academic research.


So whose responsibility is it to make honor “a thoroughgoing ingredient of a Duke education”? According to Sanford, it’s us–students. We are the individuals who have the power to define the institution which we occupy. Students drove the creation of the Honor System, then the Honor Commitment, then the Honor Code, and finally, the Community Standard. Each generation grappled with the same questions, in part because ethics is a journey without an endpoint. It is up to us to engage in the transfer of knowledge and tradition from generation to generation, so that we recognize why our moral compasses have been calibrated to point in a certain direction. As campus discussion focuses on housing and community, it’s important to remember the common denominators that underlie our identity as Duke students. The ties that bind are those of respect and virtue; a belief that Duke is a place where students build each other up to be right and hold one another accountable when wrong.


It’s fitting then that the 100th anniversary of Terry Sanford’s life should coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Duke Honor Code. Perhaps the best way to celebrate the life of one our university’s great leaders would be to remember his most “outrageous ambition” for Duke students–to “be drawn together by some additional honor code embracing more than just a prohibition against cheating and violating specified rules of conduct.”

Duke Honor Council’s column runs on alternate Thursdays.


Share and discuss “Moral memorials” on social media.