Knight: At Yale, honor code essential

Although I spent four years working to establish and reinforce an honesty code at my high school, the issue of academic dishonesty was one of my last concerns when I arrived at Yale last fall. To me, Yale was (and continues to be) an ideal university: It did not seem like a place where any significant cheating would occur.

One year later, Yale has met and exceeded all but one of my expectations — and the tofu apple crisp is not the problem. I have trouble expressing my fondness for the residential college system, my classes, my peers and the general atmosphere of Yale without resorting to enthusiastic superlatives.

However, there is no doubt that this university has an academic dishonesty issue.

Certainly, at Yale, cheating seems to be on the milder end of the spectrum, both in numbers of incidents and in type. As a yesterday’s News article “ExComm cases could be just ‘the tip of the iceberg’” (10/06) notes, it seems reasonable to believe that most cheating occurs on take-home problem sets, and less frequently on papers and tests. Author Raymond Carlson writes, and I believe it safe to say, that a significant majority of Yale students do not cheat.

Nevertheless, the cheating that occurs at Yale is indicative of a larger societal culture of dishonesty that pervades institutions of every kind, including corporations, government administrations, non-profits, military and police forces, and the scientific community. At best, the impact of dishonesty is confined to a classroom, office or singular situation. At worst, dishonesty chips away at the security of our society. One simply needs to examine the sub-prime mortgage crisis to see how this can happen.

To echo the sentiments addressed in Carlson’s article, I believe that most people who cheat did not start the school year with the intention of cheating; those who cheat are often under some kind of stress that makes the benefits of cheating appear to outweigh the risks.

However, the potential benefits of dishonesty do not diminish after graduation — nor does the pressure that renders these benefits even more appealing. In most of our future careers, opportunities to profit from dishonesty will be more frequent than now.

As an institution that turns out leaders in all sectors, Yale would do well to establish an honor code, a formal, written affirmation of the Yale community’s values with regard to academic honesty. One’s signature on Yale’s honor code would represent a promise to oneself, one’s peers, and the larger academic community to uphold these values.

Would a Yale honor code — one that every student knows about and has the option to sign — be completely effective in eliminating cheating on campus and beyond? Of course not. Will it introduce valuable information and inspire important discussion? Definitely.

When I arrived at Yale, I received little information about Yale’s policy toward cheating except that it is a severe offense, and that specific penalties and other relevant information could be found in the Yale College Undergraduate Regulations. But to the best of my knowledge, few students have even read this document.

An honor code, particularly one that is formally introduced and explained to students, would ensure that every person on this campus is familiar not just with the rules and regulations of academic honesty, but with the spirit and principles behind these regulations. If students were given the option to sign their agreement with the honor code, they would be provided with the opportunity to think about academic dishonesty in relation to themselves. Above all, the honor code would serve as a catalyst to start discussing academic and other forms of honesty: why it matters, what its role should be on campus, and the struggles we all face in our pursuits to work ethically.

Discussion and contemplation of dishonesty in society — from a personal standpoint, from a philosophical standpoint, from an institutional standpoint — is crucial, and should not take place solely after a devastating incident has occurred. The time to start discussing academic dishonesty is not as students who have been suspended or expelled for cheating pack their bags; the time to start discussing corporate dishonesty is not in the midst of a financial meltdown.

At Yale, we must discuss academic dishonesty now. And if by this discussion we learn that we value honesty, then we should introduce an honor code — for it would only reinforce what we already cherish.

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