Student Forum votes to adopt new academic honor code

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By Joshua Ostrer

After five years of surveys, focus groups, assessments and research, the Union College academic honor code is coming back. This Tuesday, Student Forum passed the adoption of the new honor code with a 10 to 2 vote, with one member abstaining. “Any student that sends in a deposit for the class of 2015 will be part of the code,” said President of Student Forum Andrew Churchill ’11.

Union had an academic and social honor code in the early twentieth century, but ended the experiment in 1925. In 2006, two engineering students, claiming to have been following their teacher’s instructions to collaborate on a project, failed their assignment due to an infraction of academic integrity and were unable to graduate in time. In response, the Academic Affairs Council founded a sub-council to investigate the reinstatement of the academic honor code. “At Union, we think so little of our students…professors are policemen,” said Chair of Ethics and Philosophy at Union Bob Baker.

However, this honor code is not the same as the previous one. The new honor code will not contain any social regulations, only academic ones. A social honor code can consist of restrictions on public drunkenness and other violations. The new academic honor code will regulate academic dishonesty in its many forms, including, but not limited to, plagiarism, cheating, falsification of data or evidence, submitting old work as new, helping someone else commit academic dishonesty and forgery of academic documents.

According to Baker, the honor code emphasizes both student and faculty responsibility by offering a more fair approach to academic discipline, rather than simply introducing new policies regarding punishment. “Basically, what an honor code does is invert the way discipline works,” said Baker, “and one of our principles is [that] we didn’t want to make new policy.”

The new academic code will give students the opportunity to become involved in the disciplinary process by creating an “honor court” of 12 students and three faculty members to hear academic integrity cases. The new code will also create new privileges for students, including self-scheduling exams and proctor-less exams. “This is the faculty’s trust in the student,” said Baker.

Many concerns have arisen in the development of the honor code, especially those involving innocent students being brought under the student council’s review. Students who are put under review and found innocent will not be penalized. “They [innocent students] can withdraw without a ‘W,’ that’s just what seems reasonable. We don’t want innocent persons involved in this kind of system,” said Baker.

Baker made a number of promises to Student Forum regarding the fair treatment of students undergoing academic review. “The honor court will only rule on what’s in the syllabus and available to the student,” said Baker.

Some honor codes at other colleges require that students who witness academic dishonesty to report their peers to the school administration. “We do not expect or require students to report other students,” said Baker.

In regards to confidentiality, all reports will be anonymous regardless of the verdict. However, the number of cases looked at, the severity of penalty and the results of cases will be made public. “If people get heavier or lighter penalties, the campus should know why,” said Baker.

According to the Honor Council Procedural Guidelines, the name of the student under review is to be kept confidential by council members. “It hasn’t been at issue at any of the school we’ve visited,” said Baker. However, the confidentiality agreement within a review meeting does not hold up in the municipal court system.

Baker insisted that the system will not always churn out the same results for the same offenses. “There’s an effort at transparency and an effort at equity, but people’s lives are complex…you have to really look into it,” said Baker.

With the honor code scheduled to be implemented in the winter term of 2012, there is much to be done. Students who will be filling seats on the honor council will undergo training throughout fall term of next year. “Fall term will be dedicated to learning the procedures…it’s important that students are educated” said Najiba Keshwani ‘13.

With the upcoming change in the structure of academic review, students will have to change their attitudes with it. “We want students to take the initiative,” said Keshwani.

Members of Student Forum articulated their opinions about the new honor code before casting the vote.

“The goal is not to suddenly wake up with a different moral integrity…the idea is to eventually ingrain it as a tradition,” said Vice President of Academics Andrew Davis ‘11.

“We need to change the culture at Union…we need to make it not okay to cheat,” said Freshman Representative David Masterson ’14.

Baker reported that the academic code will be posted on the bioethics website along with older honor codes during the transition period. “We have to still figure out what’s the best way of doing this…we want a lot of student feedback,” said Baker.

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