CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Harvard University, whose motto "Veritas" means "truth," has never had a student honor code in its nearly 400-year history — as far as it knows. But allegations against 125 students for improperly collaborating on a take-home final in the spring are leading to renewed consideration of the idea.
Though widely associated with college life, formal honor codes are hard to implement and fairly rare on American campuses. But some would argue they’re especially important at places like Harvard that are wellsprings of so many future leaders in government and business.
Cheating and plagiarism are serious rule violations at Harvard, just like anywhere else. But Donald McCabe of Rutgers University, an expert on academic cheating, puts the number of schools that go beyond such rules with some sort of formal honor code at no more than about 100. Details vary, but the commonalities are a pledge signed — and largely enforced — by students not to cheat. Some require students also to report any cheating they witness.
At a few places, such as the military academies, the University of Virginia and some tradition-bound liberal arts colleges, honor codes extend far beyond academic misconduct and cover any lying and cheating. Many such schools are clustered in the South. William & Mary, in Virginia, claims to have had the first student honor code, dating to 1779 at the behest of Thomas Jefferson, an alumnus and the state governor at the time.
"You have surveys showing between two-thirds and three-quarters of college students cheat, and higher ed leaders don’t care, or at least not enough to do anything about it," said David Callahan, senior fellow at Demos, a think tank, and author of the book "The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead."
If cheating cost schools points in the US News & World Report college rankings, he joked, "then you’d see more action."
Research dating back 40 years shows lower rates of cheating on campuses with honor codes — in McCabe’s data, the rate is about a quarter lower. Still, such numbers show codes aren’t a panacea, and he says they won’t work everywhere.
For schools that have them, honor codes are a point of pride, with visible effects on campus. At tiny all-male Hampden-Sydney in Virginia, students leave their backpacks in hallways and other public places without fear of theft. At schools like Wellesley and Davidson, the whole feel of final exam season is different. Students typically schedule exams themselves, or take them home, signing a pledge to follow the rules and not to share the questions with other students.
At Davidson, outside Charlotte, N.C., the student-run honor council, which can impose punishments up to indefinite suspension, hears about 12 to 15 cases per year. Taylor White, a senior who leads the honor council, said that’s a remarkably small number for a school of 1,950 students.
But the code does more than instill a socially beneficial fear of getting caught, she said. It also imbues the whole campus with an atmosphere of trust, and gives students values they carry after graduation.
"It’s liberating," White said, for students not to worry others are cheating. "We all sort of feel that there’s an instant respect when you meet any student in any class, and also a trust." The code, she said, "works for students here every single day. It works against students 12 to 15 times a year."
But that culture can take decades, even centuries, to develop. McCabe’s research found that while honor code schools have less cheating overall, there are exceptions.
His research shows that what appears to prevent cheating is a culture of taking academic integrity seriously. Often that correlates with a code, but not always. Also required are buy-in from students and faculty, and constant renewal for incoming students. That usually only works on a manageably sized residential campus with a strong identity.
McCabe said the honor code was a defining experience for him and virtually all his classmates as an undergraduate at Princeton. But he doubts it could work at an enormous university like Rutgers. In the Ivy League, undergraduate-focused Princeton and Dartmouth have prominent honor codes, but schools with bigger graduate and professional programs such as Yale, Columbia, Cornell and — for now — Harvard do not.
While the size and high-achieving ethos are a challenge, Harvard has the kind of culture where a code should work, McCabe said.
"The more selective the school, the better chance it’ll work because students will be more responsive to the danger of being thrown out," he said.
Harvard officials said Thursday they discovered roughly half the students in a class of about 250 people may have shared answers or plagiarized on a final. The Harvard Crimson student newspaper and Wall Street Journal reported the cheating allegations concerned a government course called "Introduction to Congress."
"These allegations, if proven, represent totally unacceptable behavior that betrays the trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends," President Drew Faust said.
In Harvard Yard on Friday, several students said that even without a formal code, Harvard does send the message academic honesty is important. They doubted a code would help.
"’Veritas,’ it’s honesty," said Anna Maguire, a freshman from Westfield, N.J. "I think you come to an institution like that and it’s a shame that not everybody can handle the motto of the school. But if people want to cheat, they’re going to cheat. A code isn’t going to change that."
Joseph Lanzillo, a freshman from Glen Ellyn, Ill., said he thought a code was a good idea, though it can’t be something "you just make people sign," he said. "It has to be really engrained in the place, and I kind of expected it would be, until I heard about this."
A few schools have implemented honor codes in recent years, such as Georgetown in 1996, but others have dropped them or continued without. Another hesitation for colleges is that putting potentially career-altering punishments in the hands of students is getting riskier, with students more likely to sue.
Discussions about a possible honor code at Harvard have been under way since at least 2010, the Crimson has reported, but the university said this episode would lead to a campus-wide conversation about academic honesty, which could include starting an honor code.
Callahan, the author of the book on cheating, said that as a place grooming so many future global leaders, Harvard should demand more of itself.
"I find it shocking that a place like Harvard doesn’t have an honor code," he said. "This is a major failure of leadership in higher education. If a school like Harvard doesn’t have an honor code, without all of its leadership responsibilities, somebody’s not paying attention."