Rejoinder to the Honor Council

William Dalsen

Last week, the Honor Council offered a response to questions I posed in our January 21 issue. There are several problems with their response, and I would like to focus on the more egregious ones here.
First, of the ten questions I asked, the Honor Council did not address eight of them. Among other things, they did not describe or define their conception of fairness, what it is to “advance one’s academic performance,” what an “academic pursuit” is or how it is “impeded.” They also did not explain why proctored exams are still the rule even though the university supposedly trusts us to obey the Honor Code, or why professors are not provided with uniform guidelines for detecting plagiarism. Regardless of whether the council is unable or unwilling to respond to these questions, we should be troubled by its silence on these matters.
Second, the council’s response is unsubstantiated. They reiterated the code and then listed what it prohibits. But no argument was provided as to why those acts are prohibited: they never describe how they decided which acts are wrong. Without an argument, their conclusions are merely dogmatic, and we have no reason to accept them. The fact that the council cannot justify its practices from the wording of the code places them in far more trouble than my original questions created.
Third, the council’s response regarding precedents is deceptive and inadequate. They note that precedents provide for continuity and consistency, and that precedents are used to a great extent in decision-making. But what are the precedents? The council deceptively states that the decisions of the council are available to the public – but the decisions are not the precedents, and the “list” they claim to use has never been made available to the public.
This raises two problems: first, students still does not know the precedents and we are therefore subject to unwritten, private laws; and second, since we do not know these precedents – through no fault of our own – there is no justification for holding us accountable under them. The fact that the council admits to using these private precedents in nearly all situations only exacerbates these problems.
Fourth, the council states that intent does not matter, and then justifies their response by saying that their policy is a “practical” policy, and that they “can only judge based on what is actually printed on the page, not what is in the student’s mind.” There are a few problems with this. In their recent letter, the council wrote that, “As the Honor Charter… and the Honor Code state, the Honor Council does not consider intent” in their hearings. But this claim is blatantly false: the word “intent” appears neither in the charter nor the code. This is unacceptable, especially coming from a body entrusted to uphold academic integrity. The council has so confused its practices with its doctrine to think that they affirm each other. The council also fails to realize that what is printed on the page is the best indication of intent: if a student copies verbatim an entire paper from the internet, we can safely conclude that the student intended to violate the code; if a single footnote in a non-essential part of a paper was omitted, we can safely conclude that an honest mistake was made. So much for the practicality of their policy.
Intent matters. There is a large gulf between an honest mistake and the wanton theft of others’ ideas, and the punishments of the council should reflect that. While both are the “wrongful appropriation” – to use a phrase from the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of plagiarism – of others’ ideas, the former is mere negligence while the latter is a premeditated crime. If there is no difference between these two types of infractions, the council must provide an argument to that effect; otherwise, we have little reason to believe that the honor system is just.
The council’s recommendation to seek the advice of professors or council members if we are concerned with unintentionally violating the code is useless. Even if we take every foreseeable precaution, we may nevertheless unintentionally violate the code. Their advice is useless because all of the precautions we could possibly take will not prevent the council from treating an honest mistake as an egregious infraction of academic integrity, and this strikes me as fundamentally unfair.
Finally, I am particularly vexed by the paradoxical possibilities of the code. As I argued in my previous editorial, plagiarizers who are caught are prevented from advancing their academic performance. The code makes no provisions for “attempting” to cheat or the “act” of cheating, and attempting to cheat does not itself advance one’s academic performance – in fact, it will likely hinder it. It therefore seems clear that these plagiarizers do not violate the Honor Code because in order to violate the code one must not be caught. This is absurd.
The council’s response to my questions is therefore utterly inadequate. These problems place it in a precarious position, and while they primarily affect students, they are not solely student issues. The faculty should be concerned as well, as the institution they have entrusted to uphold the academic integrity of this university suffers serious flaws. Perhaps most importantly, because of the council’s inability or unwillingness to identify its precedents, students have no idea what they are reaffirming when they complete papers and exams. Something is being upheld by the council, but whether it is academic integrity, I have serious reason to doubt.