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Multiplying sanctions, subtracting seriousness clause

The Messages on the Bryan Hall walkway this week have displayed some anger over Honor Committee Education School representative Jim Haley's proposal to eliminate the seriousness standard when an honor violation includes academic cheating. The mock recruitment flyers for "SSHAM" (Students Supporting Honor AdMinistration) implied that removal of the clause either reflected or would create a lynch mob mentality in honor trials. But the posters overstate the case.

Certainly, getting rid of the seriousness clause without making further changes would be a travesty. The honor system could be strengthened, however, if the removal of the seriousness vote was accompanied by the implementation of a structured multiple sanction.

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    The chief purpose for voting on the seriousness of a case in any situation is to balance the enormous power of the single sanction. Expulsion from the community would necessitate major negative changes in a person's plans and aspirations. Ideally, we would live in a community of people with such moral certainty that they would view a cheater as a cheater, regardless of the seriousness of the crime.

    But in reality we accept that there is a difference between sneaking a crib sheet into an exam and looking in the back of the book for the answer to a question in a problem set. One warrants expulsion, the other arguably does not. Since an honor jury cannot choose what penalty it will apply in a given case, the seriousness standard is used to determine whether a person's lying, cheating or stealing deserves the response of the single sanction. Removing the seriousness clause while keeping the single sanction allows punishment that does not always fit the crime. It's like shooting someone for jaywalking.

    The problem with the extra vote on seriousness is that it weakens the community of trust by allowing the jury to equivocate. A panel of students could determine that a student intentionally cheated on a paper, and then with the second vote decide not to punish the individual. Surely nothing can be more damaging to the community than allowing an unpunished offender to walk free.

    Since the trial record is sealed, and a prior accusation cannot be mentioned if the offender is accused a second time, the seriousness vote could allow a student to cheat chronically without significant fear of punishment.

    These two facts result in a tension between fairness to the individual and fairness to the community. Surely it is unjust to apply an exorbitant penalty to a minor act. Yet it is also unjust to allow those who have violated the tenets of the honor system to remain in -- and reap the benefits of -- the community of trust.

    This tension can be eliminated, however, by removing both the seriousness clause and the single sanction. A jury that has a variety of options for punishment can better fit a penalty with a violation than a jury that has to choose either to do nothing or to expel a student. These changes also would remove some of the burden and pressure that the single sanction places on a student panel.

    Simply allowing panelists to choose from a range of punishment options, however, is not the best way to implement a multiple sanction. First, such a system would create a great risk of jurors giving arbitrary sanctions. Two students cheating on the same test could get completely different penalties. Second, given that students don't like to expel each other, allowing a free range of choices likely would mean that the sanction of expulsion almost never would be used, even if it were deserved.

    The answer to this dilemma is to rigidly structure the multiple sanction, matching specific penalties to specific types of violations. In the case of academic cheating, there is a convenient way to set up a mandatory schedule of penalties.

    Any piece of classwork on which a student has cheated counts for some percentage of his grade. Sanctions therefore could be tied to the percentage of work tainted by cheating. A minimal sanction would be that the cheater automatically fails the course. As the importance of the assignment the student cheated on increases -- or if the student is shown to have cheated chronically -- then the sanction could ascend through varying periods of suspension to expulsion or revocation of the diploma.

    Such a system would allow the community to punish adequately all those who violate the honor code, while removing the chance for arbitrary penalties that could serve as a lightning rod for lawsuits. Ultimately, removing the seriousness clause in cases of cheating would make the honor system stronger. Only if we simultaneously replace expulsion with a multiple sanction, however, will it truly be made better.