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Monday, October 17, 2005

The Honor Code

Like many educational institutions, the law school where I teach has an "Honor Code."  Two thoughts, and a question:  First, in my view, our "Honor Code" is too heavily on procedure and process; it reads like the Con. Crim. Pro. profs wrote it.  I'd probably prefer something like this:  "Our students do not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do."  Second, I am coming to wonder if it is realistic to expect that students will, in fact, refuse to tolerate those who lie, cheat, or steal.  In my own (limited) experience with proceedings under our Honor Code, it has seemed to me that students seemed more concerned with protecting accused students than with the possibility of -- and the seriousness of -- academic dishonesty.  I worry that the students who report alleged violations face more disapproval than those who do the violating.

So, some questions for other lawprawfs and students:  Does your institution have an Honor Code?  Does it "work"?  Why?   

Posted by Rick Garnett on October 17, 2005 at 10:30 AM | Permalink


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» Pondering Academic Honor Codes: from The Volokh Conspiracy
Notre Dame law professor Rick Garnett is seeking comment on academic honor codes in law schools. Do they work in practice? If so, why? [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 18, 2005 9:23:44 AM


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I usually don't have cause to praise Wabash College, but I've always found their honor code to be quite, well, almost inspirational:

"The student is expected to conduct himself at all times, both on and off the campus, as a gentleman and a responsible citizen."

How it works in practice I do not know.

Posted by: Ryan | Oct 17, 2005 10:58:12 AM

I'm not sure exactly what our honor code says, but if I found someone cheating I would immediately turn them in. This isn't really a statement of principle; I just don't want someone to get better grades than me by cheating. I would argue that most of the motivation for turning in students is self-interest and not principle-based, and thus that honor codes have only symbolic value.

Posted by: Jeff V. | Oct 17, 2005 2:07:51 PM

Most of us know someone who was caught cheating on a test or cheating other classmates, and who received little punishment. Why should students risk his or her standing if school administrators don't seem to properly punish dishonest students? Indeed, in one instance, a couple of the fortunate sons and daughters were implicated in a scam that cheated some of their fellow classmates out of $50 or so bucks each. Not only were they not punished, but the student who reported them was reprimanded for not handling the matter more "discreetly." (The student was furious when nothing happened, and thus told everyone who would listen what the students had done. He got into more trouble than the crooked students!)

Posted by: Anon | Oct 17, 2005 2:28:10 PM

As a proceduralist, I can't say that I agree with the proposition that the best way to have a working honor code is to make it simple and straightforward, and to do away with all the rest.

The most we can hope for is that by putting the right systems and procedures in place, people will do what we want. The "we don't cheat" platitude is nice, but it is cheap. What does it mean to cheat? Who do you talk to if you think someone is cheating? THAT's what matters, to the extent that ANY of this matters (since my intuition is that it may not work anyway).

Imagine a rule at a company that says "we do not sexually harass others in the workplace." That's not workable, and it isn't even a real policy. In fact, beyond being a statement of intent, it is essentially worthless.

The question is not whether ND should have well-articulated procedures, but only whether THESE are the procedures it ought to have--i.e. that are likely to achieve the desired result. And on that, I have no opinion.

Posted by: Hillel Levin | Oct 17, 2005 2:44:27 PM

I was an Honor Court Prosecutor at my school and I also felt that the judges were more concerned with protecting the student than they were with academic dishonesty. Not only that, but some of the very students who voted for me to be in the position scorned me for daring to do the job!

Though I "won" all of my cases, the students eventually appealed their convictions and sentences to the Dean. While he did not overturn any of the convictions, he did reduce the sentences in each case. My gut tells me that the accused students were very wise to hire licensed defense attorneys with connections to the Dean.

Posted by: sebastianguy99 | Oct 17, 2005 3:53:58 PM

Does no one else believe that in some cases (not all, or even most, mind) standing by your friends is a more moral/honorable motivation than turning in a cheater?

If I found out that a friend of mine cheated, there is virtually zero chance that I would turn him or her in. Depending on the egregiousness of the violation and the reasons for it, I would probably make it clear that this wouldn't hold for a second time, and I might break off the friendship, but I would not turn the person in then and there. I figure I owe my friends at least that much loyalty.

It's a matter of moral priorities, I guess, and anyone is free to argue that mine are off-base. But honor codes stipulating that no one who tolerates cheating is tolerated have always irked me for this reason.

Posted by: anon | Oct 17, 2005 4:42:43 PM

Why would you take the position of prosecuting (I assume) fellow students in the first place? That was likely a poor decision and I would at least question your good sense, if not your motives.

There isn't a real win-win outcome... Besides, getting elected, if yours was like most schools, is not a pat on the back from the student body; it's more like a choice between lesser evils, with a strong sideline of voting for your favorite overachiever/gunner/pompous person.

Honor codes are nice thoughts, but they are almost always far too warm and fuzzy and open to injustice.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward | Oct 17, 2005 4:43:53 PM

"Does no one else believe that in some cases (not all, or even most, mind) standing by your friends is a more moral/honorable motivation than turning in a cheater?"

Nope, not in law school. And not in life, either. I wouldn't want to be friends with someone who cheated in something significant (it'd be another thing if it was something insignificant, like speeding or a swim test or something).

Posted by: Jeff V. | Oct 17, 2005 4:49:38 PM

Students just might be following what they see among the "grownups" in the American academy. Let's first see some real consequences for the many, many profs and authors who've been caught in recent years. Then maybe we can expect something from the students that they teach.

I am purposely not listing some of the big scandals, as I don't want this to go off on a tangent about which ones really were/weren't guilty. As long as we all agree that there have been SOME big ones in recent years -- though our specific lists might differ -- then it makes sense to ask whether the student problem is related or not.

Posted by: cynical about academia | Oct 17, 2005 6:46:26 PM

I've just graduated from a Mid-Atlantic law school where our "honor" code was held over everyone's head, more like a list of things that will get you expelled than a code of expectations that we were held to as professionals.

i.e., "The honor code will be in effect at this event..." so don't do anything stupid.

The effect was that first years very quickly learned that it didn't pay off to go to the administration when they though they might have accidently, though innocently, broken the code.

On our first exam my friend went to our "Dean of Expelling You" because he wasn't certain if he had gone over the time limit on the exam because of confusion as to when it started (we had pretty poor proctors). He had not gone over the alloted amount of time for the test, he merely started late and ended late. It seems like under an honor code he would be on his honor to have abided by the rules, which he did. Instead of merely letting the whole thing go, she had his grade docked.

Incidents like this quickly get out and the code became a mockery. Lucky, the school, at great expense I'm sure, adopted the "Etegrity" computer testing program, to ensure that students are "honorable" regardless of whether they abide by the code.

Posted by: Gump | Oct 18, 2005 9:44:59 AM

I was the Honor Council Chairman at my law school, and quickly realized that if you really want to have an Honor Code, it has to be procedurally and linguistically strong. In many cases, the only people who are truly interested in enforcing the Code are those on the Honor Council, as the administration has little interest in punishing its own students (my school was different, fortunately), and certainly the students themselves aren't too keen on being punished. You need a Code that can work despite that.

For example, our Honor Code originally, like most, defined it as a violation to "lie, cheat, or steal." Good start. But then we got a case where Student A told Student B to sign them in on the attendence sheet so that Student A could skip class and still get credit for attending. Technically, under the original Code, only Student B could be prosecuted. Student A didn't lie, cheat, or steal, after all. He got someone ELSE to do that. Little things like that can be a problem.

I was also made well aware of how professional counsel can get involved to change the landscape. When we amended our Code to fix the various problems and leaks that popped up during my early cases, one thing we did was ban professional counsel from all proceedings. There is no right to professional counsel for Honor Code matters, and it only serves to intimidate judges and prosecutors to have to deal with one.

We also decided that it is best to have a decentralized structure so as to minimize potential accusations of bias. Before, the Chairman received the complaints, appointed people to adjudicate the complaints, and sat as a judge the whole way through. Bad idea. Now, the Chairman receives the complaints, appoints people, and then only serving as a clerk of court, ensuring that things are progressing smoothly and answering procedural questions for all sides.

Since the amendments, things have gone a lot more smoothly in all facets. Knock on wood, of course.

Posted by: James N. Markels | Oct 18, 2005 9:51:00 AM

Honor codes are a zero-tolerance policy that only applies to honest students.

Posted by: Ken Arromdee | Oct 18, 2005 10:05:27 AM

We had an Honor Code - which was quickly ignored after the first semester, when people were caught egregiously cheating, with several witnesses, and nothing happened. Like the other posters, the administrators seemed more annoyed at the inconvenience we had caused them by bringing the issue up.

Another problem was that the Honor Code did not seem to apply to the faculty. First of all, there was the disrespectful treatment, which was to be expected. But also, one of our professors was caught in a very bad case of academic dishonesty and his punishment was... being named to an endowed chair!

Enforcement of the standards has to start at the top, or else an Honor Code just seems like another game that students have to get around in order to succeed.

Posted by: Tim Amulb | Oct 18, 2005 10:06:45 AM

I have never seen an honor code violation procedure that wasn’t the product of extremely selective enforcement, or some vendetta against the target. Schools that allows this to happen should have professional counsel “intimidating” them at every step of the way.

In reality, most cheaters never get caught. It is embarrassing for a school to have to prosecute someone that is capable of defending themselves (especially their family is rich). When I was in law school I witnessed people cheating no less than eleven times. They ranged from having advance copies of the exam to bringing in cheat-sheets to closed-book exams. People knew. Some professors knew (in fact, I think one professor gave him the advance copy). Three of them are partners at large firms now. Two are AUSAs, and one has had his name floated for a federal judgship.

Why didn’t I turn them in ? Because people who rat would feel quickly have their lives made miserable by the school. I saw it happen once and I was not going to become the next one.

Life isn’t fair. Honor codes, unfortunately, don’t solve anything.

Posted by: Anon | Oct 18, 2005 10:11:10 AM

I just graduated from a NYC law school after having done my BA in the UK. I find Honor Codes to be a peculiar American "old boy" convention that seem to ape a French "collaborator" mentality. They also in effect pass the burden of enforcement from professors and proctors to students. Creating a gestapo-like mentality among students is not very productive, in my humble opinion. If schools are so concerned about cheating they should hire competent proctors, not senile sticklers with no eyesight. I find it hilarious that law schools talk about reducing competitiveness among the student body and then encourage students to snitch on others. Students prosecuting other students? And then you wonder why lawyers have a bad reputation.

Posted by: Anon | Oct 18, 2005 11:04:43 AM

I don't see how it's any different than lawyers prosecuting other lawyers for ethics violations.

I think there is a significant cultural aspect to consider. A school that actively fosters a culture emphasizing ethical conduct will do well with its Honor Code, while a school that lets faculty mess around or play favorites will not do well with a Code pretty much no matter what.

Posted by: James N. Markels | Oct 18, 2005 11:14:38 AM

I have friends that have gone through the Military honor code that is linked to at the top, and it seems to hold more than other codes. The codes at the academies are not perfect, but they are treated with the up most respect, because you will get kicked out of the academy and will either have to reimburse the govt. or spend 4 years as enlisted.

I think the key to having an honor code that works (self enforcing) is that there is some larger shared value that all members have, and that the loss of being part of the community, that shares this value, is strong enough to encourage compliance. Law schools do not really have that. I don't see a higher shared value that all the students subscribe to, therefore it would be difficult to get all the people to submit to the code, and enforce it.

As has been mentioned, the code must be enforced, as fairly as possible, but it must be enforced in every case. Without the consistent application of the code it looses all its power and becomes a nice piece of paper that everyone ignores.

Posted by: BCN | Oct 18, 2005 11:19:01 AM

I know your question was specific to law schools, but I do have an experience to share on the "reporting" aspect of it. Before law school and undergrad, I attended an elite public high school where students were actually being provided scholarships to attend their first two years of college. During a biology lab practical my first year, Student X dropped her scantron, and across the floor flew the copies of the diagrams of starfish and squid, etc., in their carefully shrunken, cheat sheet form. She was immediately removed to the hallway by the TA. The next fall, our class was quite surprised to be joined by Student X, since not only was cheating grounds for expulsion, but we were on SCHOLARSHIP. An overwhelming majority of our class expressed concerns at the "town hall" meeting with the administration that our petition protesting her return to school inspired.

Student X's punishment was to retake that particular biology class over the summer. The school refused to discuss or reconsider her punishment, even though our concerns centered on the fact that people usually cheat in multiple classes, and that her entire GPA should've been in question.

What I learned that day should be obvious, and served me well in law school, although I'm sure my grades in law school reflect the fact that I, personally, obviously am no cheater.

Posted by: Kris | Oct 18, 2005 11:37:58 AM

Agreed, BCN.

The Honor Code at the University of Virginia also applies to its law school. It works very well, in my opinion. Here is the short explanation: http://www.virginia.edu/honor/intro/explain.html

As it applies to the law school -- we were told that expulsion was the only sanction. http://www.law.virginia.edu/home2002/html/academics/honor.htm

Most often, the professors at UVa Law never gave us a chance to cheat. Most of my exams were open book, take home. If you hadn't studied or prepared, books couldn't help you at that point.

Regardless, UVa as a whole takes great pride in its honor system. There was recently a huge cheating scandal. It really rocked the whole University. The University went so far as to revoke the degrees of those who had graduated who had been found to have cheated. You can write whatever words you want and threaten all you want, but honor is part of a community's culture and an article of faith.

Posted by: md | Oct 18, 2005 11:43:51 AM

Spending a year in American Law Schools, the Honour Code was possibly the thing that confused me the most. Asking someone to sign a piece of paper declaring their honesty is like saying "cross your heart hope to die" or whatever the childish phrase is. Or writing "I promise" 50 times to show good faith. It became more bizarre when one of my Professors showed me an ancient copy of the original honour code for the school which read for 2 pages!! The students in the old days had to write this out!! It included a promise that they had never engaged in duelling and assumed that everyone was a "gentleman".

In Britain if you cheat it is irrelevant that you never signed an honour code- it is implied by agreeing to sit the exams that you don't cheat!

Posted by: Rhadamanthus | Oct 18, 2005 11:59:18 AM

Although Harvard Law School does not have an honor code, I believe a student was turned in by other students for confessing to a violation of examination rules about three years ago (misreporting the number of words in a length-limited examination). My understanding is that after the incident, the student discussed his "achievement" with other students in a self-congratulatory fashion, and that several students reported him to the disciplinary board, even in the absence of a formal obligation.

I do not know whether the reporting students were all in the cheater's section, in which case the grading curve might be one suspected motivation for their actions.

Posted by: Anonymous | Oct 18, 2005 12:17:12 PM

Honor codes "work" if and only if students are punished severely when it is proven that they knew about an honor code violation and did not report it. There was a '90's paper to this effect, as I recall, by two John Hopkins professors. The paper may have had as its primary topic a study of complicity with the secret police in China, but the mechanics was the same: people inform on others if and (by and large) only if they will be punished for failing to inform.

Posted by: Michael Kochin | Oct 18, 2005 1:53:43 PM

Steven K. Berenson, What Should Law School Student Codes Do?, 38 Akron L. Rev. 803 (2005), available at http://www.uakron.edu/law/lawreview/pdf/Berenson384.pdf.

Posted by: howvan | Oct 18, 2005 2:11:07 PM

We recently had an Honor Code kerfluffle at our law school, wherein a professor's extremely vague and confusing directions for a mixed group-solo assignment resulted in the professor hauling a large group of students before the Honor Court, while conveniently ignoring one member of the group, who happened to be the son of a Federal judge. The son of the FJ went in to complain to the professor and asked to be included in the Honor Code investigation, since he had engaged in the exact same acts as the others. He was rebuffed. What Honor is involved in that?

Posted by: IComeAnon | Oct 18, 2005 4:50:25 PM

I attended U of Missouri-Columbia, class of 93. I had two relevant experiences. (This comment window is misshaped in firefox so I can't see all of the text I'm writing.) In first semester property there was a pop quiz for a very small percent of the grade, graded by the person next to you. Apparently maybe a dozen people colluded in reported higher grades than they had really gotten. No one reported it - we learn in kindergarten not be a tattletale. In second semester torts I was falsely accused of cheating. We also learn in kindergarten to find someone weaker than us to scapegoat, in order to establish ourselves in the pecking order. I think the accusation against me may have had to do with singling me out as different and not one of the group.
Details on request. I was found guilty by a student committee, based on what I should have known about unwritten rules. On appeal, I was exonerated by a student-faulty committee. This came up again when I applied for admission to the Missouri bar. It wasn't the only thing in my file, by a long shot, but it was another red flag. I was denied admission to the bar, and ended up moving out of state, which hasn't worked out so well. My point is it's important to get it right, avoiding false positives while catching a high enough percent of dishonorable conduct to have a deterring effect.
I have trust issues, so maybe this is my paranoia talking, but I tend to think we pretended to have an honor code, so later we could pretend to take a professional oath, so that we could pretend to swear to uphold the constitutions, so that we could get high paying jobs with the government and its big firm allies, violating the constitutions on a daily basis.

Posted by: arbitrary aardvark | Oct 18, 2005 9:38:36 PM

I graduated in May from Tulane University Law School, and I really do not believe that its honor code was effective. I observed two problems:

1) There came to be a perception that the law school, in its desire to be politically correct, did not fully enforce the honor code. At the end of my 3L year, it came to light that many people in my class had developed Attention Deficit Disorder either just before or during their first year of law school, and were given "accommodations" on their exams, which ranged from extra to unlimited time to complete examinations.

If these students had ADD, or at least the severe variety which would necessitate some form of accommodation, it seems very curious that one would not have discovered it until their first year of law school. It seems that the law school simply accepted that all of these students suddenly discovered a disability, without question.

What makes this problem so egregious is that those diagnosed with ADD so suddenly did not use it to make themselves competitive; rather, they used it to grade onto law review and to make order of the coif. Now, maybe it is just me, but how hard can it be to achieve high grades when you have at least 30% more time to take an exam than everyone else?

There is no reason for so many people to have suddenly discovered this condition unless they were seeking a competitive advantage. While it may not violate the rule of the honor code, it certainly violates the spirit. For the Administration to simply look the other way, for whatever reason, shows the entire student body that they have no respect for the honor code, and basically says "if you can figure out a way to beat the system, we will reward it." If the Administration does not respect the Honor Code, it is tough to enforce it against the students.

2) Some professors used the Honor Code as a way to control their classrooms. Since we had wireless internet access in all parts of the law school, many students would start surfing the web when they became bored in class. As a way to stop that practice, a few professors required students to mark themselves absent from class if they used the internet for non-class purposes.

This policy was ineffective because it was not even clear that the honor code, as cited, would actually require a student to mark themselves absent, so students were unwilling to report someone for what may or may not have been an offense. This type of novel use of the Honor Code undermined its enforcement because it was of dubious application and because it is hard to feel sorry for a professor that is essentially admitting an inability to control what goes on in their classroom.

Posted by: Originalist | Oct 19, 2005 11:46:29 AM

Md, It my experience, people at UVA cheat a lot. They talk a lot about the honor code, and then brag about cheating.

Posted by: Anon | Oct 20, 2005 9:57:15 AM

I've managed to save up roughly $54182 in my bank account, but I'm not sure if I should buy a house or not. Do you think the market is stable or do you think that home prices will decrease by a lot?

Posted by: Courtney Gidts | Nov 15, 2005 5:38:42 PM

I think that Honor Code is a bit old-fashioned. I reapiting those words that mean nothing to me.

Posted by: Alan | Feb 19, 2006 3:13:50 PM

It appears Originalist did not bother to research ADHD before posting a derogatory comment. Many individuals only discover they have ADHD when they enter law school because their intelligence has allowed them to "get by" in less demanding situations. For more information, check out: www.addresources.org and www.chadd.org

Posted by: Jane | Feb 26, 2006 8:15:39 AM

I have not personally witnessed cheating. However, many professors that give take-home exams seem to foster small, unethical groups that suddenly cease whispering and hide their suspiciously test-like packets of papers when other class members walk by them.

It is the nature of many law schools to treat the Honor Code process like a formal court, where violations must be proven far beyond the capacities or inclinations of other students to investigate.

Posted by: anon | Jun 28, 2006 6:15:08 PM

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