CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Harvard University, whose motto "Veritas" means "truth," has never had a student honor code in its nearly 400-year history — as far as it knows. But allegations against 125 students for improperly collaborating on a take-home final in the spring are leading to renewed consideration of the idea.
Though widely associated with college life, formal honor codes are hard to implement and fairly rare on American campuses. But some would argue they're especially important at places like Harvard that are wellsprings of so many future leaders in government and business.
Cheating and plagiarism are serious rule violations at Harvard, just like anywhere else. But Donald McCabe of Rutgers University, an expert on academic cheating, puts the number of schools that go beyond such rules with some sort of formal honor code at no more than about 100. Details vary, but the commonalities are a pledge signed — and largely enforced — by students not to cheat. Some require students also to report any cheating they witness.
At a few places, such as the military academies, the University of Virginia and some tradition-bound liberal arts colleges, honor codes extend far beyond academic misconduct and cover any lying and cheating. Many such schools are clustered in the South. William & Mary, in Virginia, claims to have had the first student honor code, dating to 1779 at the behest of Thomas Jefferson, an alumnus and the state governor at the time.
"You have surveys showing between two-thirds and three-quarters of college students cheat, and higher ed leaders don't care, or at least not enough to do anything about it," said David Callahan, senior fellow at Demos, a think tank, and author of the book The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead.
If cheating cost schools points in the US News & World Report college rankings, he joked, "then you'd see more action."
Research dating back 40 years shows lower rates of cheating on campuses with honor codes — in McCabe's data, the rate is about a quarter lower. Still, such numbers show codes aren't a panacea, and he says they won't work everywhere.
Harvard officials said Thursday they discovered roughly half the students in a class of about 250 people may have shared answers or plagiarized on a final. The Harvard Crimson student newspaper and Wall Street Journal reported the cheating allegations concerned a government course called "Introduction to Congress."
"These allegations, if proven, represent totally unacceptable behavior that betrays the trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends," President Drew Faust said.
In Harvard Yard on Friday, several students said that even without a formal code, Harvard does send the message academic honesty is important. They doubted a code would help.
" 'Veritas,' it's honesty," said Anna Maguire, a freshman from Westfield, N.J. "I think you come to an institution like that and it's a shame that not everybody can handle the motto of the school. But if people want to cheat, they're going to cheat. A code isn't going to change that."