Duke University Alumni Magazine


President, Duke University

he flurry of frightening news stories begins to seem depressingly routine. A 1998 survey by Who's Who Among High School Students finds that 80 percent admit to having cheated, 83 percent say cheating is common at their school, and 53 percent do not believe cheating is a serious ethical violation. William Raspberry, Knight Professor of the practice of communications and journalism at Duke, revealed in his November 1999 Washington Post column that about half of his students admitted to having cheated in high school.

The same month, U.S. News & World Report ran a cover story quoting an anonymous Duke student who had turned in a friend's program as her own in a computer science course: "It's not a big deal because it's just a mindless assignment. It's not a final or a midterm." The magazine's own poll suggests that "90 percent of college students believe cheaters never pay the price," and that "one in four adults believes he has to lie and cheat to get ahead."

In April, the results of a cross-institutional 1999-2000 Academic Integrity Survey showed that 45 percent of Duke students had cheated at least once in their college careers: 38.5 percent had copied at least a few sentences without footnoting them in a paper; 37 percent had falsified lab or research data; 11 percent had copied during an exam.

In the middle of all this, the student leaders of the Honor Council, backed by the resources of the Center for Academic Integrity, a consortium of 200 colleges and universities housed at Duke, has stepped up the campus dialogue this year and is vigorously pushing for a stronger honor code. They have sponsored panels representing all sides of the issue, published letters and columns, and generally helped stimulate discussion.

The effort has historic precedents. The president of the Duke Woman's Student Government Association in 1957 wrote of a strong honor code proposal then on the table: "To my mind, we have one major purpose in passing this Code--the transfer of responsibility in this college community to the students themselves." The women were convinced, the men were not so sure, and the effort dissolved with the departure of Liddy Hanford's senior class. As our distinguished alumna Elizabeth Hanford Dole '58, she delivered this year's Commencement address.

The issue came up again in the early 1980s, when President Terry Sanford created the President's Honor Council, composed of juniors and seniors who encouraged students to develop their own concept of honor and act on it. Sanford wrote to the Class of 1984: "Value-free inquiry must not be confused with value-free action."

The current code dates from 1993. It was passed by only a very narrow majority of students voting and has yet really to take root on campus. Compared with the tough traditional codes on such campuses as West Point or the University of Virginia, it is modest in its expectations. It is true that all students sign it, it is routinely posted and printed, and it does bind students to demonstrate integrity in the pursuit of their intellectual endeavors and to encourage their peers to do the same. However, for many students and faculty members, the honor code is peripheral, elective, and unclear. Along with quite a few other student, faculty, and administrative leaders, I believe this needs to change.

Sooner or later, those who are content with our current situation come up against some sobering ethical dilemmas. Two things are certain: National data reveal a growing tendency for more students to cheat, and for students to regard more kinds of cheating as trivial; they also show that schools with a strong honor code have less cheating, even though cheating is theoretically easier there, owing to unproctored, self-scheduled exams. Such systems instill and depend on a greater degree of mutual trust between faculty members and students, and a higher sense of responsibility on the part of all students, for themselves and for the system.

Many of us believe that creating such a climate at Duke would go a long way toward improving the sense of intellectual integrity, and the quality of education itself, on campus. But how should Duke proceed? What arguments will best motivate today's students and faculty members to work for a "true" honor code on this campus? I am convinced that this requires a combination of appeals to "enlightened self-interest" and to loftier moral arguments about what kind of community we want to be.

There are very good reasons why an education based on shortcuts and fabrications, an education that involves cheating instead of learning, is no education at all. If students get the right answer but have no idea why it is true, they have gained no knowledge at all, which is a waste of all the time and money spent at Duke. And in the real world, when you set out to build a bridge or craft a legal document or begin brain surgery, just knowing what the result is supposed to be is of mighty little use in making it happen; pity the poor patients and clients!

Education is based on an implicit contract between teachers and students. Both must have a genuine interest in learning and conveying, to the best of their ability, knowledge that they believe to be true, and ways of discovering whether or not it passes various tests for truth. This is the whole point; the end result, the "right answer" or the high grade, is a worthless substitute.

If Duke is ever going to become an honor-code school, we can't approach the cheating problem with mutual distrust between faculty and students. The values promulgated by the Center for Academic Integrity--honesty, trust, fairness, respect, and responsibility--lend themselves to a different approach and a different kind of community, the kind I would rather live in. Though cynics mock these concepts as "motherhood and apple pie" statements, they have held up well under the scrutiny of several thousand years of reflection, and they will hold up under our own if we can look without blinking.

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