October 15, 2019

JOHNS | To Codify Its Values, Cornell Needs an Honor Code

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In her annual address to Cornell staff last Thursday, President Martha Pollack spoke about the many challenges confronting this institution, from the ongoing endeavor to expand University mental health services to the administration’s efforts to mitigate the inconvenience caused by the construction of the North Campus Residential Expansion. Although many undergraduates may have found the speech routine, Pollack highlighted an underreported development: this year’s ratification of a core values statement, a brief set of ideals intended to define the University’s 21st century mission. The statement correctly underlines the importance of “free and open inquiry and expression” as a means toward “purposeful discovery,” a laudable theme that this column repeatedly has argued is indispensable to the integrity of any university.

In Thursday’s address, however, President Pollack noted that it is now time to go a step further — to use the statement to ensure that “as a community of faculty, of staff and of students, that we live the core values” the University has outlined. This is an important step, and she is right to call on Cornellians to realize and represent the institution’s stated values in the campus community. But how can the administration make these values actionable?

For starters, Cornell could take a cue from its esteemed College of Veterinary Medicine, which 56 years ago turned its own “core values” into a clearly written honor code. The statement properly acknowledges “honesty and integrity” as “a highly prized way of life to be zealously guarded” and “an educational asset to the core curriculum that strengthens the quality” of its community and its graduates’ education. Unlike the undergraduate Code of Academic Integrity, a legalistic document that simply outlines rules and enforcement procedures, the College of Veterinary Medicine’s code carefully defines and enumerates the characteristics of honorable conduct, beyond just impermissible actions.

This is a notable distinction. While it is important, of course, that undergraduates be instructed to not cheat, they are not — as Cornell’s veterinary candidates have been for decades — guided to “show respect to peers, instructors, staff and clients” and to “behave in a manner that supports an environment conducive to learning.” A real academic community cannot stand merely on what one cannot do; it must impress upon students that values, and values alone, ultimately define an institution and those who graduate from it. Under a prospective code, Cornell’s students would be expected to act honorably in communal interaction with their peers. As such, each would be responsible for our collective reputation.

The University must decide if its students are expected to be more than just studious — and an undergraduate honor code could be a strong step toward turning ideals into deeper obligations to this institution and its community.

The good news is that values of deference and respect are not arcane; nor is the University left with the obligation of making them up as it goes along. Discussions of these topics, including standards of conduct, are hundreds or even thousands of years old. Cornell would do well to require students in the College of Arts and Sciences, for instance, to take a class on ethics in addition to its promotion of honorable behavior across campus, among other potential changes. Do we really want to allow entire generations of students to graduate without even a rudimentary understanding of these crucial concepts?

The cost of inaction could be steep. Already, Cornell and universities across the country are nursing an entire generation with values in the wrong places, that are far more loyal to their own ambition than any notion of service. Writing in National Review this July, Charles C. W. Cooke authored a persuasive criticism of higher education, correctly reminding Americans that today’s average liberal arts graduate is really not all that “more educated, more capable, more useful and more rounded than is, say, the average electrician.” This is likely a hugely uncomfortable and shocking thesis for many current Ivy League students, faculty and administrators, who carry themselves with a sense of self-assigned elitism, to grasp. Absent action, however, this emerging thesis will only gain further strength.

To save higher education, universities must acknowledge that they will have to do much more than reward intelligent students who are merely ambitious. The purpose of the liberal arts ultimately is to civilize our society, not merely credential it — therefore, institutions must ensure that they promote a real standard of ethical conduct rooted in humility, not just supply an elite education. Academia’s relevance is under attack as its integrity is wearing down, and the critics propelling these criticisms are not without some valid arguments. There ultimately is little reason to respect an academic class in this country that enters society without even a perfunctory exposure to the ethics, honor and respect that define civilized society.

At Cornell, we would benefit from a unifying statement that emphasizes these first principles. Good news: the University has finally taken prudent steps to protect at least one of its core values, the promise of “free and open inquiry and expression,” after several years of failing to do so. But the campus must do more than merely protect speech; it has a responsibility to promote an ethical culture that makes such a core value implicit. Yet one need only take a single look at the nakedly abusive comments on The Sun’s Facebook page to grasp that it is still miles away from achieving this. The Cornell community is sorely wanting for some modicum of respectful restraint in student behavior.

President Pollack’s call to turn rhetoric into action is a timely opportunity to take stock of our community, which like many institutions of higher learning is likely more fragile than it may appear. At Cornell and on campuses across the country, we must follow the Vet School in emphasizing honor as an achievable, intrinsic good — defined in part by a generous disposition in our dialogue, a respectful temperance in our discourse and a spirit of zealous guardianship.

Michael Johns, Jr. is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mjohns@cornellsun.com. Athwart History runs every other Wednesday this semester.