Rick Garnett over at ProfsBlawg asked his readers about student honor codes and whether they work. His readers, who seem to be mostly lawyers and law students, chimed in with quite a few comments, most of them negative.
I have dealt with honor codes at two institutions. My undergraduate institution, Caltech, has a simply stated and all-encompassing honor code that is enforced entirely by the students. My sense was that it worked very well when I was there. (I assume it still does.) Caltech has a small (800 students) and relatively homogeneous student body, with a student culture that features less student versus student competitiveness than you might expect. Competition there tends to be student versus crushing workload. The honor code was part of the social contract among students, and everybody appreciated the benefits it provided. For example, you could take your final exams at the time and place of your choosing, even if they were closed-book and had a time limit; you were trusted to follow the rules.
Contrasting this to the reports of Garnett’s readers, I can’t help but wonder if honor codes are especially problematic in law schools. There is reportedly more cutthroat competition between law students, which could be more conducive to ethical corner-cutting. Competitiveness is an engine of our adversarial legal system, so it’s not surprising to see law students so eager to win every point, though it is disappointing if they do so by cheating.
I’ve also seen Princeton’s disciplinary system as a faculty member. Princeton has a student-run honor code system, but it applies only to in-class exams. I don’t have any first-hand experience with this system, but I haven’t heard many complaints. I like the system, since it saves me from the unpleasant and trust-destroying task of policing in-class exams. Instead, I just hand out the exams, then leave the room and wait nearby to answer questions.
Several years ago, I did a three-year term on Princeton’s Student-Faculty Committee on Discipline, which deals with all serious disciplinary infractions, whether academic or non-academic, except those relating to in-class exams. This was hard work. We didn’t hear a huge number of cases, but it took surprisingly long to adjudicate even seemingly simple cases. I thought this committee did its job very well.
One interesting aspect of this committee was that faculty and students worked side by side. I was curious to see any differences between student and faculty attitudes toward the disciplinary process, but it turned out there were surprisingly few. If anything, the students were on average slightly more inclined to impose stronger penalties than the faculty, though the differences were small and opinions shifted from case to case. I don’t think this reflected selection bias either; discussions with other students over the years have convinced me that students support serious and uniform punishment for violators. So I don’t think there will be much difference in the outcomes of a student-run versus a faculty-run disciplinary process.
One lesson from Garnett’s comments is that an honor code will die if students decide that enforcement is weak or biased. Here the secrecy of disciplinary processes, which is of course necessary to protect the accused, can be harmful. Rumors do circulate. Sometimes they’re inaccurate but can’t be corrected without breaching secrecy. For example, when I was on Princeton’s discipline committee, some students believed that star athletes or students with famous relatives would be let off easier. This was untrue, but the evidence to contradict it was all secret.
Academic discipline seems to have a major feedback loop. If students believe that the secret disciplinary processes are generally fair and stringent, they will be happy with the process and will tend to follow the rules. This leaves the formal disciplinary process to deal with the exceptions, which a good process will be able to handle. Students will buy in to the premise of the system, and most people will be happy.
If, on the other hand, students lose their trust in the fairness of the system, either because of false rumors or because the system is actually unfair, then they’ll lose their aversion to rule-breaking and the system, whether honor-based or not, will break down. Several of Garnett’s readers tell a story like this.
One has to wonder whether it makes much difference in practice whether a system is formally honor-based or not. Either way, students have an ethical duty to follow the rules. Either way, violations will be punished if they come to light. Either way, at least a few students will cheat without getting caught. The real difference is whether the institution conspicuously trusts the students to comply with the rules, or whether it instead conspicuously polices compliance. Conspicuous trust is more pleasant for everybody, if it works.
[Feel free to talk about your own experiences in the comments. I’m especially eager to hear from current or past Princeton students.]