Tuesday, May 6, 2014

We Have an Honor Code!

As the Crimson reports, the FAS voted an honor code, and an associated judicial body, into existence this afternoon.

Though I have some quarrels with the details, for now I'll just post the text of my remarks to the Faculty, before the vote took place.
First let me say that I am opposed to neither integrity nor honor. Strongly in favor of both! In fact I am glad that these words are re-entering our vocabulary. I just haven’t heard the evidence that the device that is being proposed here gets at the problems we have, or that we even understand what those problems are. We should be talking about the incentives and rewards we present to our students, and to which they respond, sometimes badly. Some introspection on faculty culture would be healthy too, because students take their cues from us. But all that will have to be for another day; I want to speak to the motion as it is before us.
 Let me go straight to the core of my worries. We have a long and, if I may, honorable tradition in this institution of not asking members of the community to make oaths, pledges, or quasi-sacred affirmations. Now I recognize that this makes us different from other places. In fact, Samuel Eliot Morison, in one of his Harvard histories, observed that it was a distinctive characteristic of the place, that the founders did not expect students to take any oaths. Morison concluded that by avoiding oaths, the founders were putting the emphasis instead on personal autonomy and responsibility. As he put it, “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.”
Do we know better now? Equipped with psychological research, perhaps we have discovered that oaths really do have the “power to bind conscience.” So it would seem, since two proposals for solemn pledges have surfaced in the past year, first for a kindness pledge and now for an integrity affirmation. Who knows what may be next.
 It all seems so retrograde. We are moving from treating our students as adults, as autonomous souls endowed with free will, to treating our students as children. We should not do so, however willing students may be to take these oaths.
In today’s world, pledges and oaths are for scout troops and fraternities and military schools, places where the high values are obedience and regimentation. Actually I once received a delegation from one of the service academies when they were trying to figure out what to do about a cheating scandal of their own. Pledges don’t belong in academic communities like this one, which at its best is a place of mature, free-thinking, skeptical, nonconforming men and women. Please excuse me for characterizing this exercise as juvenile, but we know that it is. No one would propose that members of this faculty make such an affirmation. Many of us would refuse to take it. We value academic integrity even more for ourselves than we do for our students. But for all the talk about shared student and faculty buy-in, voting this would be to go on the record as believing that a ritual affirmation of integrity is good for students, even though we would not be willing to take it ourselves.
Let me close by asking a couple of direct questions, in a sharper form than I have put them before, in the hope of getting clearer answers. 1(b) of the motion states, “Commitment to the honor code will be demonstrated through an ‘Affirmation of Integrity.’” The verb form seems not to be an imperative, as it is in the previous Docket Item, which uses a third person “shall.” Is the affirmation voluntary or mandatory? I am of course not asking whether integrity is required of students. Of course it is. I am asking about the act of affirmation itself. Is making that affirmation voluntary or a mandatory? If it is mandatory, what is the sanction on students for failing to affirm their own integrity? Will that act of defiance or neglect be treated as a breach of academic integrity? And finally, will individual faculty members be required to require students to make these affirmations?

I suspect some of my Princeton-educated colleagues may not have appreciated my way of putting things.

Faculty rules do not allow me to quote what others said, so I can't say whether my questions were answered. That may be a matter of opinion, actually. 

It was a disappointing discussion overall, with too much eagerness on the part of both students and faculty for making pledges of doubtful utility, and too little about what cultural changes will have to accompany the affirmations. (Hint: If certain faculty spent more time in Cambridge and less in Washington DC, that might be a good start toward persuading students that we are really engaged in a joint educational enterprise. Returning papers promptly, graded and commented, might be another nice gesture toward signaling to students that we take the educational enterprise seriously. An Honor Code will do nothing to change such realities of faculty behavior.)

A literature review is available to faculty, supposedly demonstrating that honor codes are effective in reducing cheating. Neither I nor two colleagues who read the review closely, one a distinguished social scientist, are convinced that the literature review supports any such conclusion. I cannot share it because it too is part of the confidential materials available only to the Faculty. But I was surprised at the dual claims that seemed to bother few of us in their dissonance: That pledges like this are meaningful and important and speak to our fundamental value of the search for Veritas; and that the psychology literature proves that making such affirmations on a properly tuned schedule are effective behavior modification strategies. Are we in the business of moral norming or psychological engineering?
Added later in the evening after the Crimson story was expanded (some edits made above too):
Despite these concerns, Harris said that research into honor codes shows that they are effective in lowering rates of cheating at schools that implement them.
“It is critical that we move in [accordance] with the research,” he said.
It would be good to make the literature review public, if it not only supports but compels the adoption of the honor code. That was not my impression when I read it. The evidence seemed to me ambiguous. There are certainly differences between different places, but whether the Honor Code itself makes the difference, or the broader cultural context, was anything but clear to me from reading the literature review.
For the second time this semester at a Faculty meeting, Lewis asked Harris whether or not the affirmation of integrity would be mandatory or voluntary and, if it were mandatory, what “sanctions” students would face for refusing to make the affirmation.
Although Harris said at April’s meeting that the affirmation would be required, he did not explain how students might be reprimanded if they chose not to make the affirmation. 
I actually did not remember that from the April meeting, and can't find it in the minutes. I had asked the same question at the February meeting, but that was before there was a motion or even a text to talk about. (The answer given at that time I should not quote, but is irrelevant since it was just a preliminary discussion.)

I am puzzled that the answer of this simple question is so ambiguous and that the lack of an answer was of so little concern to my colleagues. The use of the simple future tense, rather than the third person imperative "shall" used in another motion we voted today, does not suggest that the affirmation is mandatory. Of course there might be a middle ground, as there was withe the "Kindness Pledge" -- to make students apply for Conscientious Objector status (sorry for my sixties memories!), or, without sanctioning refuseniks, to make the pledge the only socially comfortable option for students, by shaming those who do not sign it (the idea with the Kindness Pledge was to leave their names off a list of signatories posted in entry ways), to let them know that they would be under special surveillance, etc.

Perhaps we shall learn more as events unfold.

Added 7 March: The Crimson now reports that Dean Harris stated at the February meeting that the affirmation would be mandatory. So this matter is now in a confused state, but I think the answer is probably that he changed his mind, the use of "will" rather than "shall" in the legislation is intentional, and no student will, strictly speaking, be required to affirm anything.

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