Allen: Bring Honor to Us All

The College and its faculty must adopt and abide by an updated version of the Academic Honor Principle that reflects contemporary Dartmouth.

by Spencer Allen | 9/30/21 4:05am

Adopted by the faculty in 1962, Dartmouth’s Academic Honor Principle commands that “all academic activities will be based on student honor.” Since then, the Academic Honor Principle has been a foundational text in the lives of Dartmouth students: It is mentioned in nearly every syllabus and discussed by many professors on the very first day of class.

In the past six decades, how students learn has changed dramatically — yet those changes have not been reflected in the Academic Honor Principle beyond a small update in 1999. The spirit of the principle serves an important purpose, but its text is archaic and its punishments draconian. In effect, the honor code is an oppressive vestige of Dartmouth’s distant past. While some of the code’s policies are sensible and should not be thrown out completely, it’s high time the College brought  the document into the 21st century for it to best serve students.

The College’s Academic Honor Principle has been a hot topic this year, both on campus and nationally. This past spring, the Geisel School of Medicine came under fire when it accused seventeen students of cheating on exams administered through Canvas, Dartmouth’s online course management system. The scandal made waves nationally —  gaining coverage by The New York Times — in part because the data used to sanction students was only meant to be used in aggregate analyses and not individual cases. While the charges against the students were eventually dropped, the effects of the scandal linger and student trust in Geisel as an institution has eroded.

Ironically, it was the administration and faculty of Geisel themselves who violated the honor code, not the students: The Academic Honor Principle states that the “proctoring of examinations” is not allowed. Even if all seventeen students had cheated — which, according to  the high-quality, publicly available evidence, is not the case — the data collected via Canvas should never have been used against them. Indeed, the examination of Canvas data is akin to a human proctor scrutinizing the contents of a student’s phone or other materials during an in-person exam. If Dartmouth’s own professors and administrators violate the Academic Honor Principle, what purpose is this apparently sacred document truly serving?

The Geisel scandal raises other important questions regarding the vitality of the Academic Honor Principle in the 21st century and specifically at a post-pandemic Dartmouth. As many course activities have moved online — with some remaining there permanently — the College must reevaluate how to define academic honesty and what to do when dishonesty occurs.

I encourage Dartmouth to radically change the Academic Honor Principle. That’s not to say that the honor code has no value whatsoever: Its core values — that students act with “intellectual honesty and integrity” in their coursework — are noble and important to the College’s academic mission.

However, what Dartmouth defines as dishonesty is questionable in today’s world. Closed-book, strictly administered exams do not reflect the conditions students will face once they enter the working world — the exact environment that being at college prepares them for. Instead, when solving problems, Dartmouth graduates — like all other professionals — will have access to personal notes, reference materials and even their own peers to consult and collaborate with while solving problems. Further, policies in some classes (though, in my experience, fewer since the pandemic began) that prohibit peer-review of midterm or final papers before submission do not reflect how academics engage in scholarly conversations: Professors themselves seek out advice and reviews from their peers before submitting their work for publication because their ideas are pushed farther and made better by dynamic conversations with their peers.

While more professors began using open-book exams and encouraging peer edits on papers after the start of the pandemic — in some cases, to prevent cheating — there is great variation between departments, professors and even individual classes. This patchwork execution of the Academic Honor Principle can leave students confused, unsure if what a professor allowed in one class is the same as what will be allowed in another class taught by the exact same professor. Students should be allowed to receive help from a friend on edits for a paper, but without universal clarity some students may be too afraid of punishment to take advantage of this.

The adjudication of the honor code itself is also unfair. While the Academic Honor Principle encourages instructors to “discuss the suspected violation with the student(s)” to better ascertain intent,  faculty members are free to either take or ignore that guidance at their own discretion. What’s more, after this optional discussion, very different violations of the honor code can receive the same punishment, regardless of whether, for example, the student in question hired another student to write their paper or merely forgot to cite one journal article. Of course, both violations are concerning, but one is clearly more deserving than the other of the “suspension and separation” offending students are liable to.

It is imperative that Dartmouth reconsider its Academic Honor Principle. The most productive and engaging scholarly activities occur in the context of community, not isolation. The current principle not only ignores this fact but actively works against it. Open-book exams and open collaboration between peers on coursework do not negate a student’s individual progress on their academics; instead, they allow students to succeed and produce the highest possible quality of work. Some professors recognize this and their courses reflect that knowledge, but the mishmash of policies among professors and classes on campus often leaves students too scared to take up those helpful accommodations. 

The Academic Honor Principle may have made sense 60 years ago, but it has failed the test of time. By reflecting on the time we have had with the honor code — as we do all other aspects of the College — we can work to make it better for future generations of students.

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