Fighting the cheating machine: Do Honor Codes still work?

by Grayson Ruhl

Executive Staff

On Tuesday, January 20, the Sewanee community had the honor of hosting Michael W. Kerwin to speak about his experiences with and concerns about Honor Codes. Kerwin is the Associate Professor of the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Denver (DU). He has been active in strengthening DU’s Honor Code system and is not only the Faculty Director of the Honor Code and Co-Chair of the Academic Integrity Board, but he is also an Executive Board Member for the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI). Kerwin spoke to us about his personal experiences with Honor Codes and the importance of maintaining honor on a global scale.

Kerwin explained that he learned the importance of Honor Codes early on from his family and through his own college experience. An “Honor Code School,” as Kerwin described, is a school with strong traditions, unproctored exams, harsh penalties for cheaters, and a student-driven system of honor. Once, as a child, Kerwin asked his older brother—who attended an “Honor Code School”—why he didn’t cheat during exams. His brother explained that, while cheating may be possible, violating the Honor Code is simply something he would never do. When Kerwin attended college, he carried this respect for the Honor Code and felt that all students understood that cheating was out of the question; because Kerwin had never felt the urge, he assumed no other students had, either.

Unfortunately, a few years into teaching, Kerwin was proven wrong. In 2004, Kerwin was grading seminar term papers when he noticed some ominous similarities between papers. After copying a paragraph of text from a student’s paper into an online search, an entire document from the EPA showed up: this para-graph was copied word for word. Nine out of fifteen of his seminar students’ papers were clearly plagiarized. Although deeply hurt and angry, Kerwin allowed his students to come forward about their plagiarism and face no Honor Code violation. Ten students, not just nine, came forward to confess some sort of cheating during their term papers.

Kerwin asked himself, “Should I have been surprised?” He was alarmed to find that few DU students realized that they even had an Honor Code in the first place. As Ker-win explored this issue further, he realized that, at the time, enforcement of DU’s Honor Code was inconsistent; because some faculty “overlooked” Honor Code violations, cheating was rampant. Whereas schools like William and Mary and UVA have had longstanding Honor Codes, Kerwin realized that DU founded an Honor Code in 2000.Even at strict “Honor Code Schools,” cheating is only getting worse. A 2013 study at Middlebury revealed that 30-70% of students admit to cheating in some form. Kerwin found, in 2013, that over 95% of cheaters don’t get caught cheating. To make matters worse, less than 10% of faculty ever report academic misconduct violations at all US colleges based on a study by Aroion in 2014. Kerwin explained that this percentage was closer to 8% at DU. Societal expectations, pressure to succeed, and the fact that many people cheat and get away with it puts massive urges on students to cheat.

Twenty-first century technology has not only caused challenges for defining what exactly cheating entails, but it has also created more opportunities to cheat. For instance, social media sites sometimes contain real time course materials. Also, students will sometimes pay essay mills (or paper mills) to produce legitimate essays, just one form of cheating that technology enables. Students may pay thousands of dollars for elegant papers created by essay mills to use in their classes.

Kerwin went on to ex-plain how the Honor Code goes well beyond college. He notes that among poverty, political unrest, and limited sources, developing and urban nations also face severe corruption, bribery, forgery, and fabrication of data. Many of these problems are akin to Honor Code violations of an extremely high degree. While developed countries such as the United States and Germany have a fixed population growth rate, developing countries such as India face ever-increasing rates of population growth. This means that most people on earth will soon be living in urban settings—settings negatively affected by transgressions such as corruption and bribery. Kerwin stresses that integrity first learned in the classroom can help create stability worldwide. A culture of integrity goes far beyond University papers and tests; it is a global concern. During Kerwin’s efforts to strengthen DU’s honor code, he has learned that faculty leadership, rather than faculty policing, gives students incentive to respect the Honor Code. It also teaches students that honor is meant not only to benefit their community, but it is meant to enhance their own lives.

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