Toward a “Modified Honor Code”?

How Harvard College might adapt academic-integrity expectations for students

Jay Harris

At the April 2 Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) meeting, where discussion about administrative investigations of resident deans’ e-mail accounts dominated the day’s business, dean of undergraduate education Jay M.  Harris also introduced proposals for dealing with academic-integrity issues. The measures, outlined in a summary paper for future FAS discussion and possible legislation, issued from the work of a faculty-student committee on academic integrity during the past three years—preceding this year’s investigation of widespread cheating on a final exam in the spring of 2012, and the resulting discipline of dozens of students.

Harris had previously signaled the kinds of “student-facing” and “faculty-facing” recommendations the academic-integrity committee was likely to issue, and indeed they fell into the following categories, outlined in the March 26 preliminary report. In a prefatory paragraph, the group noted that it was addressing “evidence that both broad cultural trends and specific local conditions may be contributing to academically dishonest behavior among a growing number of students.” The recommendations are aimed at addressing both procedures and “cultural interventions…to ensure that each member of the community—faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates—shares a common set of expectations about integrity.”

A “Modified Honor Code”

The committee is drafting a statement aimed at emphasizing that “the most effective learning is predicated on trust between students and teachers and often depends on collaboration among them. The honor code and the culture that surrounds it should signal to students that Harvard values learning, intellectual inquiry, and intellectual exploration more than it values the external trappings of ‘success.’” Implementing elements would include:

  • A “declaration of integrity,” through which students could “affirm their adherence to the code and their membership in a scholarly community.” Such a “moral prompt,” the committee found, usefully reminds students of their obligation to behave ethically when completing assignments. The declaration would be written on all assignments and final exams, and students might be asked to adhere to it upon matriculating. Student committee members are writing the draft.
  • A student-faculty judicial board. Departing from the current practice, where the Administrative Board—the Harvard College dean, other deans, House-based resident deans, and faculty members—oversees academic-misconduct cases as well as administrative matters relating to students’ academic performance, behavior, leaves of absence, and so on, a new entity—with student members—would be created. A 2009 report on the Administrative Board recommended student participation in some sort of judicial board, but that recommendation was not enacted. The new judicial board would hear all cases of academic integrity, while other cases would continue to fall under the Administrative Board’s jurisdiction, with overlapping membership on the new judicial board.
  • Exam proctoring. The committee rejects unproctored examinations, concluding that such a measure “would be unlikely to enhance the culture of trust that we are trying to build” in part because “peer reporting” of cheating “would not be any more successful at Harvard than it is elsewhere.” Accordingly, the committee called for rules that specify the importance of having teaching staff at exams to maintain a fair environment for all students.
  • Sanctions. The committee found that Harvard’s existing sanctions for misconduct are sufficient, but stated that they should be reviewed and made more transparent to faculty and students alike.


The recommended “modified” code differs from the pure, student-initiated and ‑administered codes at some peer institutions. For instance, as previously reported:

Princeton and Stanford both prominently have student-focused and ‑administered honor codes and enforcement mechanisms. The Princeton honor code “holds students responsible for academic integrity on campus and governs all submissions of written work, examinations, tests and quizzes.” The Stanford Honor Code “is an undertaking of the students, individually and collectively: that they will not give or receive aid in examinations; that they will not give or receive unpermitted aid in class work, in the preparation of reports, or in any other work that is to be used by the instructor as the basis of grading; that they will do their share and take an active part in seeing to it that others as well as themselves uphold the spirit and letter of the Honor Code.”

The new student-faculty judicial board, as the oversight body for academic-misconduct allegations, will pose interesting questions for faculty review, among them:

  • How would student members fulfill their responsibilities in any future instances of widespread cheating, given that the Ad Board members faced enormous demands on their time during the past fall term? (Harvard College dean Evelynn M. Hammonds had to give up teaching her scheduled fall course because of the case load.)
  • Would the Ad Board, which has been conceived as an educational rather than a legal or punitive institution, change in character?
  • Would a new academic-integrity board change the role and status of the resident deans, whose work on students’ behalf, and in Ad Board proceedings, is central to their responsibilities?

“Cultural Interventions”

Beyond the classroom itself, the committee advocates infusing the community at large with discussions of academically appropriate behavior and culture. Without specifying actions, the group suggests that measures be taken to “signal the importance of academic integrity” at the time of application to the College; before matriculation; during the writing-placement test required of all entering students; and in a new, more focused way, perhaps, during the “Opening Days” orientation for first-year students. Thereafter, students would perhaps be reminded of these expectations during a sophomore orientation, at registration each term, and in House-based and concentration-based discussions and advising.

The Faculty

The committee cited clearer guidance provided this year to faculty members on how to explain courses’ collaboration policies to students, and is developing a website-based “assignment taxonomy” with “examples of assignments and grading rubrics.” The latter is meant to provide guidance on what kinds of assignments might “allow students to deepen their comprehension o[f] course material and develop particular analytic skills” and to share data on courses with and without exams. (Data distributed separately to the faculty indicate that exams are a vanishing species at Harvard. In academic years 2004-2005 and 2005-2006, 28 percent to 29 percent of courses had exams; in recent years, that figure has declined to about 19 percent to 20 percent—and the percentage of students enrolled in courses with exams has declined similarly, from 54 to 58 percent in the earlier period to 39 percent to 45 percent in the most recent academic years.)

The committee is “also looking at other interventions that could be suggested to faculty to promote integrity in their courses,” and at how “departments might address issues of integrity with their concentrators,” perhaps in tutorials.

FAS has one remaining faculty meeting scheduled for regular business this academic year, on May 7—making it unlikely that any legislation required to effect some of these changes (were the faculty so inclined) will be completed this year.



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