April 29, 2008

Committee Compares Integrity Code to Campuses Nationwide

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Academic integrity is an issue prevalent at campuses across the country, and over the past semester it has come under increasing scrutiny at Cornell. Leading the initiative to reexamine Cornell’s current rules against cheating is the University Assembly’s Committee to Consider Academic Integrity, which hosted an open student forum yesterday afternoon to discuss Cornell’s current honor code and ways to model it after the honor systems at the University of Virginia and the University of Colorado.
While academic integrity is an integral part of each student’s academic experience, it often lacks visibility and priority in students’ daily activities. This was apparent yesterday, as the forum only drew 10 students, despite being open to the entire student body. However, for the undergraduates and graduates who were present, it proved to be an insightful discussion.
“I do not think this forum got a lot of publicity, but we need to begin somewhere. I am heartened by the fact that anyone showed up. I am also delighted that some undergraduates are taking the lead [in pushing this initiative]. Faculty must have a role, but that does not mean we cannot delegate it to the students. Between all of us, we can create something that makes sense,” said Dean of University Faculty Charles Walcott Ph.D. ’59.
The original motivation for this reexamination is that under Cornell’s current Academic Code of Integrity, reporting violations of academic integrity is the sole responsibility of the faculty — they retain the prerogative to bring a case to the Academic Integrity Hearing Board, settle it by themselves or simply ignore it. Further discouraging faculty from reporting cases is the bureaucratic red tape associated with the process.
[img_assist|nid=30307|title=Making the point|desc=Chris Basil ’10 presents to the University Assembly Committee to Consider Academic Integrity yesterday in Goldwin Smith’s Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]For the students, the situation is little better. The Academic Code of Integrity is not only long and vague, but each college has a separate judicial system. The net result is that student understanding of the document and the process of punishment for violations of academic integrity is marginal at best.
However, the current code does provide students with four general responsibilities, which some believe would be a great framework for a formal honor code.
“The current code works great as a framework for a formal honor code, it just has to be revised and shortened so that it can be easily understood and used by the student body,” said Chris Basil ’10, executive vice president-elect of the Student Assembly.
The four responsibilities are: A student shall in no way misrepresent his or her work. A student shall in no way fraudulently or unfairly advance his or her academic position. A student shall refuse to be a party to another student’s failure to maintain academic integrity. A student shall not in any other manner violate the principle of academic integrity.
Having an honor code provides students with several benefits, including being student-run, being more transparent, unifying judicial procedures between the seven colleges, and stating a clear commitment to academic integrity at Cornell.
According to the University of Virginia, students at the university make a commitment not to lie, cheat or steal. If reported and proven guilty for a non-trivial infraction by a jury of undergraduates or Honor Committee members, a student faces permanent expulsion. Thus, students are presumed honorable until proven otherwise, but if proven guilty, the consequences are harsh. In one case, a student was expelled for stealing a one-dollar bill.
“We do not have a precedent for what are trivial and non-trivial infractions. Something that was termed trivial in the past does not necessarily mean it will be termed trivial currently. Take for example the one-dollar story — that is not necessarily going to be repeated. That being said, there are unofficial thresholds,” said Sanjiv Tata ’09, a transfer student from the University of Virginia who served on its University Judiciary Committee.
Under this system, there were 54 investigated cases in the 2006-2007 academic year, with 30 trials resulting in 10 guilty verdicts and nine students leaving the University of Virginia without trials. However, one survey at the University of Virginia found that 56 percent of students would have been more likely to initiate an honor case if there were multiple sanctions available.
Addressing the issue of multiple sanctions, the University of Colorado’s honor code, while modeled off the University of Virginia system, offers nine different sanctions, ranging from a letter of warning, to academic ethics seminars, to recommendation for expulsion.
Considering these two honor codes, students at the forum acknowledged that implementing either one would be a lengthy process, but the University of Colorado’s honor system would be a better fit for Cornell, at least initially.
“The University of Colorado system would be better for Cornell initially, [so students can adapt]. We should aim to begin with the University of Colorado system and perhaps eventually narrow down to the University of Virginia system,” said Tata.
However, the ultimate success of an honor code at Cornell requires everyone’s cooperation and promoting the code from every angle, including instilling in incoming freshmen the principles of honor and integrity.
“The development of an honor code will have to involve graduate students and faculty as well as undergraduates, because enforcement will be everyone’s responsibility,” said Basil.
“It will also be particularly important to inculcate the principles of honor and integrity as core values at Cornell in incoming freshmen. If we develop new generations of Cornell students whose only interactions with Cornell are with a firm commitment to honor, then that is the Cornell they will assume always existed and we can begin to build a ubiquitous commitment to academic integrity,” he said.
The final form of Cornell’s honor code, should there be one, is far from decided, but at minimum, the existence of an honor code will stimulate more students to talk about honor at Cornell and consider honesty in their work and lives.
“The more discussion you can have about this the better. It helps emphasize that we do as a university care about academic integrity,” said Walcott.