The signatures of every student on campus adorn the wall of Sarratt. Those signatures bind every student on campus to follow the Honor Code, which has defined Vanderbilt academic integrity since the school’s inception.
But those signatures can ring hollow.
A recent survey conducted by the Vanderbilt Hustler found that — excluding first years, who have only been in classes for a few weeks — 47 percent of students have witnessed cheating, out of 118 non first-year participants.
“That’s a high number,” said Garrott Graham, senior and president of the Honor Council, visibly troubled by the statistic. “One of our goals as an Honor Council is that we’re [making sure] that number is always shrinking. This is speaking aspirationally, but we want to foster an environment where … the school holds its students to a high standard of character.”
That number does not look to be shrinking. According to data provided by the Honor Council, the number of Honor Code sanctions has risen from 61 in the 2012-13 school year to 97 in the 2014-15 school year.
Understanding the Honor Code
The Honor Code defines and judges instances of academic malfeasance on campus, and the Honor Council is the group of students that is responsible for educating students about academic integrity and presiding on panels to investigate, hear and determine penalties for student cases. Punishments assigned by the Council range from failure in the course — the presumptive penalty for a first offense — to expulsion for a third offense.
Graham acknowledged the Honor Code signing for incoming first-years is ceremonial, rather than informative, in nature. Senior Nancy Pendleton said even upperclassmen students haven’t even read it.
“I signed it like an hour ago [on an exam] and I don’t even remember what it said,” Pendleton said.
She’s not alone in thinking that the Honor Code signing is a “formality” soon forgotten. For junior Gracie Gonzalez, honor is something a person values or doesn’t — signing a piece of paper isn’t going to alter that.
“I think it’s easy to put your name on something,” Gonzalez said. “I just think there’s a lot of pressure here for people to succeed, and I think a lot of people find their version of success through dishonorable methods.”
Others feel they don’t need to read the guidelines, potentially heightening the chance for misconceptions.
“Me, personally, I wouldn’t cheat, so I didn’t read it,” said Sreeja Kondeti, first-year. “But I think there are a lot of people out there who didn’t read it and are just going to do whatever.”
Sophomore Paige Southworth said part of the problem is that people don’t understand the consequences of violating the Honor Code.
“You know there’s an Honor Code, and you know there’s an Honor Council to deal with it if you break it, but you never really hear about people that have drastic consequences,” she said.
HOD Professor Andrew Van Schaack finds that students are not very motivated to seek out the necessary information about where the cheating “line” falls on their own.
“The line students are stepping over is clearly laid out in the student handbook,” Van Schaack said. “But who reads the student handbook?”
Under the Honor Code, it’s a violation not to report witnessed cheating. Yet one anonymous junior remembered witnessing blatant cheating — people talking during tests and passing quizzes around — under the nose of a professor. The junior knew about the professor and course entering, and it was part of why the course was appealing.
“There was a reputation,” the junior said. “I know kids who took the course for that reason.”
Even with the obvious cheating, the junior didn’t report any violations to the Honor Council.
“I thought that wasn’t my place. If they wanna do it and get caught, so be it. I’m not out there to screw anyone,” the junior said. “I don’t want to be the person to get someone in trouble, especially considering I’ve done things too that I am guilty of.” Other students echoed similar sentiments.
Test banks: dangerous territory
According to Graham, test banks — collections of old class materials such as tests, essays or lab reports maintained by various organizations on campus — aren’t inherently illegal, but they definitely aren’t encouraged.
“They are not inherently violating the Honor Code, but it is easy for a student using test banks to come across unauthorized material,” Graham said. “You don’t know what students are putting in there, so it’s definitely dangerous territory.”
Graham defined unauthorized materials as something a professor would not want circulated — for example, photos of an exam that is not returned to students for them to keep.
“It’s my responsibility to make sure things that go in there are following university standards,” said the academic chair of a Greek chapter on campus. While the academic chair was confident that their chapter’s test bank followed school rules, they couldn’t say the same for other Greek chapters, claiming that many other chapters are not vigilant about keeping their test banks legal. The academic chair also emphasized that Greek chapters are not the only ones using these kinds of methods to share information, and said that non-Greek test banks may even be less regulated.
A professor’s perspective
Professors acknowledge the reality of test banks at Vanderbilt.
“I expect that these will happen. I don’t condone it, but I expect it,” Van Schaack said. “Think of it this way. Does Munchie Mart sell ping pong balls and Solo cups? Why would we do that — kids are avid ping-pong players? I don’t wanna say the university tacitly condones certain behavior … but they pick their battles.”
Van Schaack also takes extra steps to ensure his students are well-versed in plagiarism. Van Schaack, who teaches a research methods course in Peabody, has found an online plagiarism certification system that educates students about what they can and cannot do in their papers.
History professor Michael Bess has been at Vanderbilt for 26 years. His approach is more hands-off, as he leaves the room during his exams.
“I announce on the first day, ‘I want us to have a relationship of trust,’” Bess said. “You trust me not to grind some ideological axe … and I want to trust you that you will do the work as best you can and not try to weasel your way to a better grade than you deserve.” Bess thinks that by treating students with this kind of trust and respect, he is able to quell cheating that may occur.
While Bess understands the instincts to cheat to get a better grade, he finds that the biggest punishment for cheaters is self-administered.
“When they look at themselves in the mirror, some part of them in their mind knows, ‘I’m a cheater, and I’m advancing through my education partly by cheating,’” Bess said. “‘And that diploma that I get will partly be gotten fraudulently, and it will therefore be a little less real.’”
Honor at peer institutions
While Vanderbilt’s Honor Code only pertains to academics, some peer schools like Duke University and Washington and Lee operate on Honor Systems that govern more than academic life.
“The threshold we ask ourselves is if [something] violates my trust or the community’s trust,” said Caroline Bones, a member of Washington and Lee’s Honor Council.
The Honor System at Washington and Lee grants students considerable freedoms, such as self-scheduled finals.
Duke University’s comparable “Community Standard” is similar in its reach beyond academics.
“It’s more of a way of living … and thinking about how your actions affect other people,” said Bryan Higgins, public relations chair for Duke University’s Honor Council.
The major difference between Duke’s Honor Council and Vanderbilt’s is that Duke’s Honor Council is not responsible for punishment, with that role falling to a separate Conduct Board. Higgins believes Duke’s Honor Council works but faces many of the same issues seen at Vanderbilt.
“One of our biggest problems is not every student knows … what we do, and we would be able to have a bigger impact if more students knew,” Higgins said.
How the Honor Code can evolve
While all Vanderbilt students sign the document, it clearly is not working to its fullest capacity on campus. So how does Vanderbilt get students fully on board with the Honor Code?
When the Honor Council observed an uptick in cheating in the Computer Science department, they reached out to the department over the summer to see what they could do. The Council helped the department revamp their CS-specific Honor Code document, taking into account previous cases.
“It was very helpful to review it and say, ‘This is what has come up,’” said Julie Johnson, director of the Computer Science department. The department also asked the Council to talk to introductory CS classes early in the year.
“I felt like if a student chose to listen, they said some really valuable stuff,” Johnson said. “And I think students did choose to listen.”
Johnson said the CS department’s collaboration also made the point that due to the differing nature of many departments, the Honor Code would likely apply differently by discipline or course.
“I think [this programming] is something other professors may want to consider, because … realizing how different the classes are, it’s probably worth a few minutes to explain how the Honor Code applies to your class specifically,” Johnson said.
“How do we get students to buy in?” Graham asked. He answered his own question by mentioning some programming ideas in the works, such as an event for Greeks and potentially a speaker to discuss academic integrity.
While Graham admits their programming can’t reach every student, he hopes by engaging more students in more critical thinking about the Honor Code, students will be aware of it and understand its importance.
Programs like this are no doubt a positive step — but ultimately, the onus falls on the student.
In Graham’s words: “The Honor Council works — the Honor Code works — to the extent that students want it to.”
— Andy Fehlman and Alexis Banks contributed to this report.