The Oberlin Honor Code: A Look Inside the System
“Systems of academic integrity are on a continuum,” said Kimberly Jackson Davidson, the associate dean and faculty advisor to the Student Honor Committee. “There is no perfect system.”
The honor code comes up for official debate every five years as a special committee works to revise it. This year is a fifth year. As the Honor Code affects every student at Oberlin from orientation onward, it is important to look at what is and is not working about the system.
Oberlin operates under what Davidson calls a “full honor code,” which is characterized by things like un-proctored exams and student administration.
“I think that the students are allowed and expected to take responsibility for their own learning and that people take seriously the limitations and restrictions is a great strength,” said Dean of Studies Linda Gates. “I think that it allows students to really learn that actual learning is bigger than passing a test. It underscores the whole issue of responsible scholarship.”
“Students are believed capable of operating within the bounds of academic honesty,” said Davidson. “It’s a form of respect.”
“I think it’s an effective system in terms of its philosophy,” said Dean of the Conservatory David Stull. “I think if you’re going to deal with issues of academic integrity, yes, it has to be taken up by the faculty but also by the students. It has to be a community concern.”
An example of “community concern” is reflected in that students administer the Honor Code via the Student Honor Committee, as opposed to authority figures overseeing the system.
“The fact that students administer this system and are responsible for most of the work is rare,” said Davidson. “It’s a matter of great pride that this is something that students do.”
“The students on the committee are grappling with the same issues as the people who appear before them,” said Stull. “I’ve found that we’ve had exceptional students on the committee. Every time I’ve dealt with them I’ve found that they’ve acted with the highest degree of integrity.”
“Students are likely to be more lenient and understanding of stress,” said College senior and SHC co-chair Valerie Neverman. “Students are likely to be more creative in their sanctions.”
Neverman conceded, however, that there were shortcomings in a student-regulated honor code. SHC members often have difficulties finding common free time to meet due to hectic schedules, for example. She also cited cases where students have resisted taking SHC as seriously as they would have if a faculty member had asked to arrange a meeting rather than a classmate.
The current system works so that it is the exclusive responsibility of the SHC to investigate a case either through physical evidence or through interviews. There is a tape-recorded hearing with the complainant or the person alleged to have violated the Honor Code. Then SHC turns off the recorder, and its members vote on whether they find the student responsible. The student is assumed innocent until proven guilty; if the student is found guilty, then they vote on a recommended sanction. SHC then submits this recommendation to the Faculty Honor Committee. FHC only sees what the SHC presents to them, which never includes any information that could positively identify the complainant.
“Sometimes the FHC will ask us to elaborate on our sanction or explanation of the case,” said SHC Co-Chair and College senior Mike Blejer. “At times they have asked us to increase the severity of the sanction. But it’s very much a dialogue.”
When FHC wants more information or reconsideration, SHC takes the case up again and refashions a proposal. FHC looks at it again and may or may not have more questions. A dialogue can continue back and forth for some time. When a compromise has been reached, the recommendation goes to the dean of either the College or the Conservatory. The dean can reopen the dialogue at will.
Despite the faculty involvement, those involved in the process insist that SHC really does act autonomously.
“Professors obviously do have a certain degree of authority,” said Blejer, “but we don’t necessarily side with them, and I can think of several cases where we didn’t. Last semester I ended up going to FHC a lot to defend our decision.”
“The FHC might think a detail had been overlooked or a different sanction would have been appropriate, but it’s not a mandate,” said Davidson. “SHC does the investigating and FHC respects the time that goes into that.”
The nature of these sanctions is also considered strengths of the system.
“Most other schools are not as lenient as Oberlin in dealing with first infractions,” said Davidson. “[For example,] the standard for University of Virginia is a ‘no tolerance’ policy where one infraction gets you expelled. In response to initial violations the SHC believes in sanctions that contain an educational component with a goal of acquainting students with resources and information that would help prevent the poor choices that lead to academic dishonesty.”
SHC members confirmed this.
“We spend a lot of time trying to handcraft a sanction to be potentially useful to the person,” said Blejer. “If it’s something like someone was really stressed out, we might give them a sanction having to do with writing a paper about coping mechanisms. [Sometimes,] you might just have to meet with a research librarian.”
“What makes people cheat always surprises me,” said College senior and SHC secretary Jessica Pearlman. “It’s never malicious. It’s usually external situations and easily fixable. We try to give them ways to counteract these external problems.”
The problem appears to stem in part from differing educational or, sometimes, cultural backgrounds.
“It’s particularly challenging for international students because not only are they learning a new language, but they’re learning new research methods that are commonly introduced in American high schools,” said Stull. “In that regard the Conservatory is different because we have a higher percentage of international students.”
But it can be an issue in the College as well.
“There are some sticky issues,” said Blejer. “Even the name ‘Honor Committee’ can cause problems. Depending on where you’re from that can be very heavily charged.”
Stull agreed. “It can be something that these students carry with them,” he said. “And that’s not good. I think on occasion we need a better way of looking at citations that are based on inexperience...The SHC often finds itself in a netherworld, and it would be appropriate to have a way of dealing with this.”
“It’s something that needs to happen more on the other end: with professor and orientation,” said Blejer about education.
But this need for further education is by no means limited to international students.
“People come to Oberlin with all sorts of educational backgrounds,” said Neverman. “Not everyone gets this training in high school.”
Davidson says the need for clarifications is acknowledged.
“In [this year’s] revision process I think there will be further clarifications of definitions,” said Davidson, who had several predictions for what will be on the table during revision time.
“I think there will be some clarification or negotiation with Senate about the appointment process,” Davidson continued. “It has been a challenge for us to get three senators on an appointment committee.”
There is another area that needs to be addressed and that is how involvement of the student body is to be organized. Everyone agrees that the student body needs to be more involved.
“A big part of the honor system that’s really important is that students take an active role,” said Blejer. “When students cooperate with the system, it’s favorable for them.”
“I think it’s really good when this is on people’s radar,” said Neverman. “We don’t own the Honor Committee. We want constructive input.”
However, this prospect presents a problem: while the Honor Code values student involvement, it honors confidentiality above all else.
“SHC isn’t something that can be discussed in a public forum because of issues of confidentiality,” said Gates.
“In order to maintain confidentiality we can’t explain sanctions or enter into public debate about them,” said Blejer.
“It’s one of the inherent challenges,” said Stull. “You want student involvement but it’s difficult to talk in specifics. Generalities aren’t always as convincing.”
Notwithstanding these concerns, the lack of general student input needs to be addressed.
“I think there is a need for a survey of the campus to see what people think of the system,” said Davidson.
Davidson agrees with the need for confidentiality, as it would not be right for uninvolved professors or administrators to know personal situations, but she hopes to find a way to mitigate the unpleasant side this mandated anonymity.
“In our judicial system students are allowed to have a faculty counselor take them through the process,” said Davidson. “Oberlin’s honor system doesn’t really allow for that. I think that being allowed to choose an advisor will help students to maintain confidentiality, but with a level of comfort that confidentiality might not always promote.
“It’s a hard line to walk,” she said.