This year, University students will vote on whether to re-affirm the single sanction or move toward a multiple-sanction honor system. I’m writing today to urge you to vote in favor of maintaining our current sanctioning policy.
There are many reasons to vote for Option 1: our system has recently undergone significant changes whose effects are not adequately known; rates of honor violations are remarkably low at the University compared to universities as a whole; the Informed Retraction, or IR, encourages and rewards honesty. Past writers have articulated these reasons, and more. However, it is not my intention to provide a laundry list of reasons to support Option 1. I want to focus on just two reasons in particular — two of the reasons that are most persuasive to me as I consider how we sanction students.
The first is that the supposed severity of the single sanction is tempered by the many opportunities for forgiveness the current system affords honest students. These opportunities become easily apparent by considering a hypothetical example. Let’s say a student intentionally copies answers from his neighbor’s exam. After turning in his test, he has the opportunity to self-report to the Honor Committee by filing a Conscientious Retraction, or CR. If he notifies the professor of his cheating, makes amends — perhaps by taking a grade hit — and presents the signed statement to the Committee, he receives no official sanction. Students who voluntarily own up to committing honor offenses are, from Honor’s standpoint, fully exonerated.
Our hypothetical student chooses not to file a CR, though. His professor notices startling similarities between his test and his neighbor’s, and two students sitting nearby noticed him repeatedly looking over and copying answers down on his own paper. The student is subsequently reported to the Honor Committee. At this point, he is given another opportunity to admit his mistake. He is presented with the interview of the reporter and the available evidence, and he is given a week to admit to the violation. If he does so, he’s suspended for a year. This is called the IR.
But, again, let’s suppose our student refuses to take an IR. He maintains he is innocent of the charges against him. He repeatedly provides testimony to his innocence and denies the accusations against him. At a hearing, against the highest burden of proof possible — “beyond a reasonable doubt” — a student panel of his peers deems the testimonies of the eyewitnesses and the weight of the evidence convincing enough to render a guilty verdict. The student is subsequently expelled from the University.
Perhaps you believe this is too harsh. But consider what has just transpired. A student who cheated on a test was given two opportunities to own up to his mistake, and chose instead to continue to lie throughout the process — to deny any wrongdoing — and to commit further honor offenses in order to cover up the original. Against an exceedingly high burden of proof and a criterion that the honor offense must be “significant,” he was found guilty of the original offense and, by implication, of lying (potentially multiple times) to avoid conviction, even when given the opportunity to admit his mistake. If one of our highest ideals is being able to trust one another, is this the type of student who deserves a degree from the University? Cheating, and then lying, and then lying again — if these do not merit dismissal, what would?
But there is a deeper issue at play here, one more intimately connected to the fundamental purpose of the University: the education of the student body. At the University, we do not believe in play-acting. One of our most ancient and enduring propositions is that true education involves assuming responsibility for our lives — taking on the privileges and duties of adulthood now, so we are prepared to contribute meaningfully to our workplaces the minute after the degree is conferred. We believe we learn best by setting high standards for ourselves — and holding to those standards.
If a professor plagiarizes, she will lose her career. Fraudulent artists are permanently disgraced. A doctor who lies to his patients will likely never practice medicine again. A store manager who steals merchandise will be let go on the spot. In the professional and academic worlds, the “single sanction” is the norm and the expectation. Many advocates for multiple sanction reform argue a tiered sanctioning system better aligns with the educational mission of the University. I could not disagree more. We will do future University students and ourselves a great disservice if we uphold lower standards of integrity than those that will be expected of us as soon as we graduate. It is by practicing a high standard now, as students, that we learn how to maintain this standard for the rest of our lives. Arguably, it is better to learn this lesson when the sanction is dismissal from a university (virtually all dismissed students go on to get a degree from another institution) than when the sanction is dismissal from a source of income or the early end to a promising career.
Our honor system is not perfect. Trust me, I’m intimately aware of our many opportunities for improvement. But a move toward a multiple-sanction system is not the solution we seek. As the vice chair for hearings, I read every evaluation from students who serve on our random study juries. The overwhelming consensus, once students see the thoroughness of our process and the many opportunities students have to admit wrongdoing, is that the system is fair. We hold high standards, but we reward honesty.
That’s why I’m voting for Option 1 next week. I encourage you to join me.
Russell Bogue is the vice chair for trials of the Honor Committee.