Two years ago, when I was chair of Literature Humanities, I wrote an editorial on academic honesty for Spectator (“Cheating and Dante’s hell” Mar. 31, 2011). I suggested that we have “an honest conversation about the grave dangers of dishonesty” and asked, “What will you students do?”. My hope was that students would begin to take ownership of the problem and devise a solution. I suggested instituting an honor code.
Last spring, the Columbia College Student Council initiated a serious conversation about academic honesty. Its Academic Integrity Task Force has recently made thoughtful recommendations, including student-run sessions about integrity and an honor code. I write to endorse these. I also write to offer my help next year, when I will return as Lit Hum chair to do everything I can to support the implementation of these recommendations.
The task force’s main goal seems exactly right: to create a culture of academic integrity on campus that requires student involvement.
Why is this so important? Right now, the burden of motivating honesty, educating students about what constitutes dishonesty, and maintaining academic trust falls on instructors. We waste precious classroom minutes educating students about plagiarism and valuable prep time devising assignments immune to plagiarism.
We fret about catching—and not catching—cheaters, while concerned students have no opportunity to do anything at all. In this bizarro world, the onus of maintaining the honesty of students falls entirely on instructors. The task force’s recommendations are excellent and grounded in an obvious truth: real academic integrity must begin and end with students. Students must be the ones responsible for educating, promoting, and protecting themselves. Although instructors should offer support, only students themselves can create and maintain an environment of trust.
The proposed changes will not miraculously rid our world of cheaters. There will always be some students immune to the ideals of their community. But the recommended policies would make an immediate and significant difference. Studies are clear: When students sign an honor pledge and actively commit themselves to honesty, they are less likely to cheat. As soon as Columbia students take up the responsibility of creating and maintaining a community of honesty, they will have shifted the culture: A violation of trust is no longer merely between the cheater and instructor, but between the cheater and the entire student community.
The task force’s recommendations should be adopted. They will have the immediate effect of shifting the primary maintenance of academic integrity from instructors to students. They will probably make a long-lasting difference by encouraging a culture of trust among students. This will benefit students and let instructors get back to practicing and encouraging the highest standards of academic work.
Christia Mercer is the Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy. She will return as chair of Literature Humanities next year. She is presently on leave in Europe, where she is researching and writing a book.
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