Recent allegations of widespread cheating in a course at Harvard have provoked much hand-wringing among Harvard professors and administrators. Their diagnoses and prescriptions predictably fall into two groups, depending on whether one is optimistic or pessimistic about the ethical capacity of today’s college students.
Optimists believe in the efficacy of moral education and responsibility. They would fix the problem by giving students clearer exam instructions or by providing incoming freshmen instruction on academic integrity. Pessimists recommend eliminating all open-book exams, implementing tighter exam security, and increasing punishments for cheating.
Count me among the optimists — but with a healthy dose of realism. Having served for the past decade as president of Reed College in Portland, Ore., I have seen that ambitious, competitive college students can exhibit academic integrity if the institution supports and honors it.
But instilling such a culture requires far more than superficial palliatives: it requires a whole set of interlocking institutional commitments that promote honorable behavior. The foundation for that culture at Reed College is called the “Honor Principle.” At Reed, all members of the community — students, faculty, staff, and administrators — are directly accountable to their peers for the consequences of their behavior. In that spirit, examinations are not proctored; students are honor-bound to comply strictly with the instructor’s rules regarding consultation of sources.
Many other features of the academic program reinforce the twin messages of trust and responsibility. A clear example is the grading policy. At Reed, professors disclose grades only when a student asks. They return papers, examinations, and laboratory exercises with extensive written comments, but no grades. Grades go to the registrar, not to the students. As a consequence, students focus on learning the material, not striving for a certain grade. In the student culture, it is uncool to ask or talk about grade-point averages. As pre-law adviser at Reed, I was constantly amazed at how few students even knew their GPAs.
This lack of grade paranoia significantly diminishes the incentive to cheat. It also, not surprisingly, reduces the pressure for grade inflation. While other selective schools have experienced rampant grade inflation, the average GPA of Reed students has remained essentially unchanged at about 3.0.
But it takes more than an honor principle and a de-emphasis on grades to combat cheating. One important element is small classes. The alleged cheating at Harvard occurred in a class with 279 enrolled students. Such huge enrollments are unknown at Reed, where the average class size is 14, and popular classes are routinely capped at 24. Even in the few large-enrollment introductory science courses, small laboratory sessions promote a sense of engagement and collective responsibility for the learning process.
In evaluating a student’s performance, instructors rely on multiple written exercises and give heavy weight to class participation. Many classes have no final exam, and no single exam counts for a large percentage of the course grade.
Finally, no institution can convincingly preach ethical behavior to its students unless its own behavior is governed by the highest ethical standards. When higher education gets caught up in a frenzy of exaggerated marketing claims, misreporting of data, sale of admission slots, or varsity-sport abuses, it destroys its moral authority. As Reed’s president, I was proud to lead a college that refused to cooperate with the notorious US News & World Report rankings, which symbolize the distortion of academic virtues in pursuit of higher education’s arms race.
If it sounds as though I am cheerleading for the institution I led, I suppose I am. At many colleges, and to many parents, the idea of backing off on grades sounds ludicrous on its face. But if colleges decline to change their ways, we will continue to be disappointed by reports of misbehavior, such as the case now embroiling Harvard.
None of the steps Reed College has taken can eliminate academic dishonesty entirely. Cheating occurs at Reed and is severely punished. But reports of cheating are remarkably rare. So, yes, I am an optimist about promoting academic honesty among today’s generation of college students. I’ve seen it happen. But I’ve also seen the kind of institutional commitment that it takes to make it happen.