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Harvard considers instituting honor code

Harvard University is weighing whether to introduce a student honor code, the first in its long history, in hopes of deterring cheating after last year’s scandal involving dozens of students found to have collaborated improperly on a take-home exam.

After extensive study, a Harvard academic integrity committee is recommending that students make a written “declaration of integrity” on all assignments, final exams, and projects as a reminder of their obligation to conduct themselves ethically.

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In its four-page report, the committee also proposes that students serve on the board that reviews cases of academic dishonesty. The board currently consists of faculty and administrators.

“It is critical that students feel ownership of the honor code,” the report stated. The student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, first reported the recommendations.

The preliminary report, presented to faculty last week, will likely serve as a starting point to a campus-wide discussion.

The recommendations, the product of three years of study, follow months of debate about cheating, both at Harvard and campuses across the country. The Harvard scandal prompted other schools, including Yale, to examine their policies on take-home exams.

If ultimately approved, Harvard would join a growing number of colleges that have introduced honor codes to combat cheating and plagiarism, which surveys suggest is widespread. Daniel Wueste, who directs the Robert J. Rutland Institute for Ethics at Clemson University, said honor codes reinforce expectations that students do their own work and show that colleges trust students to do the right thing.

“They are on their honor,” he said.

In contrast, colleges without honor codes may guard against cheating more aggressively, creating an environment in which students labor under suspicion.

“The message is being sent to students that we don’t trust you, and it’s a very clear message,” Wueste said. “I think it can backfire.”

Wueste praised the Harvard recommendation to involve students in the handling of cheating cases, saying it helps create a culture of accountability.

“It’s not going to be very effective if it comes from on high,” he said. “When the rules are violated, it’s taken as an affront not just against the rule, but the others who are bound by the code.”

Surveys have shown that more than half of college students say that they have cheated, said Donald McCabe, a specialist on academic dishonesty at Rutgers Business School. But honor codes appear to reduce cheating by putting questions of integrity at the forefront

“It gives them pause,” he said.

At Harvard, more than half of the roughly 125 students investigated for cheating were forced to withdraw from school. Others received probation or had cases dismissed.

The students were accused of collaborating on a take-home exam in a government course, to the point where some responses were suspiciously similar. But many students have taken issue with the allegations, saying the similarities arose from shared notes.

In its report, the Harvard committee recommended against unmonitored exams, which many colleges with traditional honor codes allow. Schools that allow such exams have reported similar or higher rates of cheating, the report stated.

“It was clear that the introduction of unproctored exams would be unlikely to enhance the culture of trust that we are trying to build,” the report states.

The report also called for a review of cheating sanctions and an effort to make them more transparent. It urged a renewed emphasis on academic ethics from the time students arrive on campus.

“It is evident that early and frequent cultural interventions that educate students about what academic integrity is and why it is important are crucial to changing the environment at Harvard,” the report stated.

The committee noted that it was created “in the face of evidence that both broad cultural trends and specific local conditions” may have contributed to academically dishonest behavior. That “impression was reinforced” by last year’s cheating scandal.

Darragh Nolan, a Harvard sophomore who served on the academic integrity committee, said the cheating scandal lent momentum to already strong support for an honor code, and he expects the idea will be well-received.

“I think it will move quite quickly,” he said.

At colleges with longstanding honor codes, administrators and students spoke highly of their effect. Stephen Nash, the outgoing chairman of the honor committee at the University of Virginia, said the code instills a sense of personal responsibility that serves as a strong deterrent to wrongdoing. “People really take pride in it,” he said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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