Columnist: Honor Code system ‘flawed’

By Bryan Weisgal

Guest Columnist

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Intentional cheating is a problem that affects everyone on our campus. Allegheny College maintains certain points of pride. Creating a challenging curriculum, difficult standards and a culture with integrity are among the goals of our institution.

In order to create such a culture, a common method used all over campus is to grade on a curve. Whether professors’ explicitly say so or not, if a class average is a 3.7, the professor will have some explaining to do. Similarly, if a class average is a 0.4, a professor will have some explaining to do. Therefore our grades depend on the quality of our work relative to our fellow classmates.

If that’s the case, a classmate that has advanced knowledge of the material, or violates the rules of the exam by using a smart phone, access to texting, or collaboration with other students, enhances his or her own grade, but simultaneously hurts everyone else’s.

I discussed this very dilemma with some friends, and one friend said, “if you are so upset about your grades, you should study harder.” In theory, “work hard and do better,” is a timeless strategy that we can all probably subscribe to a little bit more.

However, being a victim of a flawed system is entirely different than not working hard enough. A student cannot be expected to perform as well as a fellow student who is playing on an entirely different playing field. It is very difficult for a student to do better on a test than a student who sneaks the textbook into the room, takes pictures of the study guide on their phone, or better yet leaves the building to take the test. Let me plead guilty to witnessing, but not reporting, cheaters who have used every single one of these methods.

While I understand the immoral aspects of cheating, I also understand (to a degree) the founding principle of my major, economics. Humans respond to incentives. Let’s look at the current incentives. The economics department carries a student average in nearly every class between a 2.7 and a 3.0. I know that I have to score better on the exam than my classmates to ensure the best possible grade.

I have heard stories of students cheating from former teammates, classmates, roommates, and alumni. Therefore I assume that someone in my class is cheating. Given that I cannot transfer, do not want to drop out of college, and do not want to submissively partake in an unjust system, I have two basic choices. My first choice is to search for, and then rat on, students who I suspect of cheating, and even then it would likely be hard to prove. The more logical choice would be to devise a plan to cheat.

I have never heard of a harsh punishment levied down from the honor committee. This is not to say that such rulings do not exist, but the secretive nature of the honor committee is such that stories of successful cheating are a lot more commonplace than the stories of harsh punishments for cheating.

Allegheny does not like to punish students. My first run-in with the RA staff resulted in a stint probation, as did my second, as did my third. They all had to do with noise complaints, or some form of underage late night liquid courage consumption.

I have also heard stories of the administration being lenient on students who have committed acts of sexual harassment. I do not know the administration’s underlying stance on drinking or their stance on punishment; frankly, I have long found such policies ambiguous.

Regardless, such policies can be discussed another day. Cheating is not drinking. Cheating directly impacts the academic integrity of the college, and as a graduating senior, I can only speak for myself, but I believe that cheating is rampant here. Very few administered exams have been played on level playing fields, and I believe we are all to blame. Not just the generic, test-taking, student.

I have voted against the honor code, but I do not think the letter of the law is to blame. The professors, who leave the stack of exams on the desk, go into their office, turn on music, and say, “good luck everyone,” are surely not helping this situation. Similarly professors who do not make major changes to exams from semester to semester, but do not make previous exams accessible, are implicitly rewarding students for getting their hands on the previous exams. This is simply unfair.

In contrast, some professors do peruse the hallways during exams, stay in the classroom, and strive to ensure that their work is fair. I have also seen professors catch students cheating, but at the same time I have seen professors livid at the honor committee on account of lax punishments, warnings, and slow rulings.

As students and citizens we bear blame as well. There are over 2000 of us, and we have built a culture that takes integrity lightly. The students’ dilemma is more complex. Our rules do not permit cheating, but our culture allows it. Similarly our rules demand that we must turn each other in, but societal norms explicitly forbid students from turning each other in. We should not cheat, and we should not rat, but a culture with rampant cheating and depleting integrity calls for both critical evaluation and significant change.