Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The honor code discussion continues

The Honor code was discussed at the FAS faculty meeting yesterday. Dean Jay Harris presented it, and Melissa Franklin, Arthur Kleinman, and I commented briefly. Harvard Magazine has a fuller account than the Crimson. Professor Franklin asked the obvious question, given all the talk about this honor code being a way to bring students into partnership with the faculty rather than having the faculty act as their superiors. Why not expect the faculty to sign the honor code too?

But the discussion was thin because the materials to discuss were thin. The honor board was off the table for now. Even the report laying out the case for an honor code was off the table. A draft had been available last year via authenticated login, but was never made public. As I recall it was discussed at one poorly attended "town meeting,"not even a regular faculty meeting. I am not even sure it was generally available to students, whose support for an honor code was cited in the faculty meeting. I conclude I was, for some reason, not supposed to refresh my memory about what it said. (I found it eventually on the web site of the Secretary of the Faculty; the draft report is dated March 26, 2013, but it's confidential. Here it is, for those authorized to see it.)

Even what is likely to be the most sensitive question, whether students will be required to write out the mandated pledge on every piece of academic work they submit, was supposed to be off the table for discussion. Professor Kleinman sensibly noted that the form of the pledge was his biggest worry. It risked turning moral matter into a legal matter. Dean Harris seemed to agree, but immediately said that it was, after all, a legal matter; we couldn't escape that. Actually, I am not sure that followed. The rules about cheating are already in place; it seems to me that, unless existing rules about cheating are rescinded, the only new thing the mandatory pledge would add legally is a new rule that refusing to take the pledge would be unlawful. This point was muddy enough that I felt I should get absolute clarity. When Dean Harris said that students would be "asked to" sign the pledge or "expected to" sign the pledge, did he mean they would be required to sign the pledge? he answered in the affirmative.

So the lack of discussion was not surprising; we had little in the way of an argument to think about before the meeting (though those of us who had been at the Town Meeting had a bit more, to the extent we could remember the arguments in the report without a text to refer to). I continue to be troubled by the whole proposal for theoretical, practical, and what I am going to call humane reasons.

On the theory, I am with Morison, the historian of Harvard who described Harvard's aversion to pledges: "Our founders knew from their English experience that oaths are powerless to bind conscience. … Accordingly this academic vessel was provided with the barest possible code of statutes, and her master and crew, unhampered by oaths and religious tests, were left to exercise their best judgment, as God gave it to them." (History of Harvard College, pp. 339-341.) 

Interestingly, this is a disputed point. Not what the Founders may have thought, but whether they were right in thinking that oaths are powerless to bind conscience. To support the view that oaths are not powerless, a psychology professor cited a study concluding that people who were asked whether they were going to vote and said yes were more likely to vote than people who were not asked. I am not a professional psychologist, but it seems a stretch to use that as an argument for forcing people to take an oath. In any case, I find it repellent to turn this matter of academic integrity into an exercise in applied psychology. Perhaps we should just bring in folks from the advertising industry, who are so skilled at getting us to do things we might not otherwise do, to help us brainwash the student body. Surely, when we talk about academic integrity, we should honor the principle that each of us is in command of our free will. The really dishonorable thing would be to suggest that some random exogenous circumstance, the noise in the room or our failure to say our daily incantation, was a reason for our moral failure.

As a practical matter, I still don't know what problem we are trying to solve or why this change should be expected to change it. I try always to remember that the first step in solving a problem is to know what problem you are solving. We got no data, except for a number or statements to the effect that the research shows that schools with honor codes have less cheating than those that don't. But we got nothing in the way of data about our own cheating, whether it is really on the rise, who does it, whether certain courses are problematic, etc. We got nothing about whether the Ad Board is a problem, either because it is making bad decisions, or taking too much time or money in making them, etc. At a minimum, we ought to have some criteria for success or failure before we change things, unless we don't care about success or failure.

Which takes me to the humanity of it all. It is not so hard to apply rules about plagiarism and other forms of cheating unflinchingly, and to mete out formulaic penalties. The only time it gets tricky is if the judgments being made are considered educational, because then you have to look into the soul of the miscreants and make subjective judgments about what response will prove, later in their lives, to have been most constructive. That requires maturity, maturity which in my experience even new deans do not have until they had been around the block for a year or two.

I have a lot of respect for students and how much smarter they are in many ways than the faculty are. I plan all my courses in collaboration with my undergraduate course assistants; they are much better than I am at anticipating how the incentives and rewards will work in the minds of students. But they are not mature enough to be making subjective, educational decisions about the souls of their classmates. The fact (if it is true) that students want an honor board is about as relevant as was the fact that students wanted, twenty years ago, to pick which House they would live in. It doesn't matter what a plebiscite would yield if it is an educationally inferior outcome.

If, on the other hand, we are giving up on the educational role of the disciplinary process, and turning it into a simple matter of crime and punishment, then the honor board may make sense. But I should not be blogging about the honor board yet, since it was explicitly divided from the discussion of the honor code, but of course these are connected. We can't discuss either without discussing both and without saying more about why we are going to do what is proposed.

[Corrected 2/9/14: "honor court" -> "honor code" in penultimate sentence.] 


  1. Every item of interest seemed to be off the table.

    What was on the table?

    Also- an old Software Eng. aphorism applies here: if you don't know what your goals are then you are not going to achieve them.

  2. I take your point about the downsides of requiring students to write a pledge on each assignment. But the psychologist you mention makes an interesting point about getting people primed. What about (i) requiring students to indicate by signature or checkbox that they are aware of the school's policies on cheating, or (ii) giving them a potential-cheating situation to judge at the beginning of each assignment?

  3. What I would like to see, after working here for 20 years in a variety of facilities, is a commitment by the university - separately from anything to do with oaths or disciplinary actions - to excellence in every aspect of its operations. Although clearly there is aspiration toward that, and for the most part the reality of it in academic endeavors, it's not uncommon to find that the quest for excellence is significantly lacking as an overall ethos for improving wellbeing of all our community's participants. With that focus, our physical environs and mutually supportive human relations would be more of a caliber such as to so far as is possible maximize quality of life for all.

    There are a lot of factors which can combine to constrain the potential for transcending the ordinary inadequacies of the present, but suffice it to say that many who engage with the mundane frustrations of institutional inertia and territorial fiefdoms here have long ago resigned themselves to there being little likelihood of change in the direction of what ought to be possible. If there were means for people to provide inputs on how in every way from basic maintenance to aesthetics we might progress toward comprehensive excellence, I think that would alter the whole flavor of the place, with resulting benefits to the academic experience accruing as well.

    1. It's part of a larger trend -- your comment could have been attached to the post above about running the university like a business. We're more hierarchical than we used to be. I don't mean that faculty weren't always at the top of the food chain, they were. But there is more going through channels, checking things with your boss, not including people in the conversation if it is not their responsibility. At the same time there is this fantasy of hyper democracy, the anonymous mass surveys of what should be in the Smith Campus Center, the electronic suggestion box into which proposals for budget cuts could be submitted a few years ago (no indication they were ever read), the generic address to which suggestions about who should be Dean of this or that should be sent (without even an auto-generated acknowledgement). Harvard knows that it is supposed to appear to listen, but you are not the only person here who has told me he feels isolated in a place he has served for a very long time.

  4. Actually, I personally am not isolated, but that's because I've put a lot of effort into proactively making and maintaining connections which wouldn't have occurred otherwise, while also devoting much time to learning all that I could about the history and the present of the place. That's not a focus of one's existence for which most community members here of whatever category would have time or the inclination. There are certainly people here far more connected and cognizant than I am, but for the vast majority, I don't think there's much of a sense of being potentially empowered to create significant change for the better, even within the small realm of one's own work experience.

    The Undergraduate Council for years has advocated in favor of dedicated social space, convenient to the main campus areas. The Hilles experiment - after donation of the library there - has not been greatly successful in that regard. When one sees what has to happen at Memorial Hall for an event of any size to take place at Annenberg - with all the tables being trucked off elsewhere - it's clear there's a need for some supplementary large venue. How much if any improvement whatever is done with the Smith Center will make, I have no idea. I do firmly believe, however, that there are great, unexplored opportunities for enhancing communication, building community so that referring to that more so means something, and giving people more "agency" for contributing their thinking to decision-makers about those factors which especially affect quality of life.