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 The rules about cheating are already in place; it seems to me that, unless existing rules about cheating are rescinded, the only new thing the mandatory pledge would add legally is a new rule that refusing to take the pledge would be unlawful.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.]