Reflections from an Honor Council Student Solicitor

Srish Sharma – My name is Srish Sharma. Alongside my partner Christian Baker, I serve as a student solicitor for the Honor Council. This is the opening email line at the start of most every case I’ve investigated in the last year. For those who aren’t familiar, the student solicitors do our best to represent the honor code, the faculty, and the student body in honor council hearings. My and Christian’s term is quickly ending; in writing this article I am offering a few observations and thoughts for campus discussion. I hope this continues some discussions started by Dr. David Perry in his Perspectives piece last year.

1. Cheating happens at Davidson. Let’s be fair about it.

I am surprised by how few cases the honor council receives. A 2002 survey reports that 74% of high school students report cheating. In college 68% of students self-report as having cheated. In schools with an honor code the rate is lower, 50% (Donald L. McCabe, 2002). The honor code seems to have woven peer to peer, and teacher to student trust into the fabric of the school. I see this trust violated far too often, yet judging by the numbers – I don’t see cases often enough. I think it is remarkable that students are trusted to the extent that we are given the absence of research on the honor code’s effectiveness. I echo David Perry’s call to conduct research on cheating as students leave the school.

In the absence of research, and given the national numbers, I worry that the take-home test environment actually punishes the most honest among us by making dishonesty easy. In the absence of adequate checks, catching the student who gives themselves the unfair advantage of an open book or the luxury of unwarranted extra time on an exam is difficult. Even if a student is accused, proving wrongdoing to the burden required in such a case, is difficult. I fear that in our trusting environment, the dishonest student is not likely to be caught. For the sake of fairness, I am urging tighter regulations on exams, particularly those that are take home. My thought is that the honor code is not about blindly trusting. It is about ensuring fairness and giving trust where trust is earned. Without research, who can say if we have earned the trust we have?

2. In reaction to a changing student body.

I am proud that Davidson is making efforts to be more diverse. Even in the three and a half years that I have been a student here I have felt a tangible shift in the makeup of the student body. It is my belief that the honor council and the honor code ought to reflect the growing diversity of the student body, so that it may best serve every member of our campus.

The honor council can rapidly grow more diverse via elections, specifically the category three elections which are coming up shortly. The honor council, in the recent past, has specifically encouraged those who believe that they well represent a wide variety of students to run. Additionally, I encourage everyone to vote for candidates who not only display empathy for a range of positions and identities, but are also willing to strictly uphold the rules and procedure of the honor code. I’m willing to argue that the latter is the more difficult position for a council member. Rather than relating to the accused student as a peer, the council member willing to uphold procedure often becomes the disciplinarian. I know from experience that this is not an easy nor a popular task. However, this form of ideological diversity is critical to the council being able to perform its task well. Please keep it in mind when you vote.

3. What exactly are the rules?

I frequently encounter misconceptions of the honor code. Many times I find students unclear about what the rules actually state. A frequent worry I hear is that a basic citation error will result a full honor council hearing. While this has occasionally happened, I want to reassure everyone that such cases are few are far between. (To reiterate: I am far more worried about those cases that aren’t being brought forward). As an outgoing solicitor, I hope actually presenting the rules for the campus will be helpful. Here, in part, is the honor code.

“Each Davidson student is honor bound to refrain from stealing, lying about College business, and cheating on academic work. Stealing is the intentional taking of any property without right or permission. Lying is intentional misrepresentation of any form. Cheating is any practice, method, or assistance, whether explicitly forbidden or unmentioned, that involves any degree of dishonesty, fraud, or deceit. Cheating includes plagiarism, which is representing another’s ideas or words as one’s own. Additional guidelines for each class may be determined by its professor; each Davidson student is responsible for knowing and adhering to them.”

A piece of the honor code that I frequently hear concern about is the requirement that students turn each other in for violations of the code, failure to do so being, itself, a violation. During one conversation held by the council a student brought up concern that such a requirement is in conflict with other values related to honor for example, loyalty. On a practical level, I have yet to encounter a case where this clause has been invoked. That being said, there has been research that shows cheating behavior is significantly more sensitive to the perception of peer monitoring rather than faculty monitoring (Burrus 2013 & McCabe 2002). I also believe that this clause makes us all accountable of each other’s actions; it makes us part of the code. On that basis alone I believe the clause to be important enough to include.

4. In defense of the Honor Code

There are without a doubt a host of issues that face the honor council. In spite of these issues it is my earnest belief that the honor code is an irreplaceable asset for the school. I certainly think that it helps create a trusting and warm place that we should all be proud of. So I thank you, student body, for trusting me and Christian with the role of student solicitor(s). It has undeniably been the most formative experience and most meaningful responsibility I have ever had. We would love to speak to anyone who has interest in running for any of the honor council positions, especially those interested in being solicitors.

By trusting the council with the power normally reserved for professors, this school is providing a phenomenal opportunity for its students. When Christian and I were transitioning into our role we were thanked by a student that we accused of cheating. They told us that “everyone should see what happens inside an honor council hearing”. I agree. There is a difficulty and stress in an honor council case that creates a learning experience unreplicated anywhere else on this campus. I very much thank those professors and deans who have trusted the system enough to give the honor council the responsibility of handling academic violations.

In conclusion, I think we need further research on our behavior to justify the amount of trust we currently receive and in the absence of this research I believe that more checks should be in place to ensure fairness; I think the council needs diversity of both experience and ideology and this is quickly accomplished via elections; I fear that many don’t read and understand the rules as stated and I urge everyone to read the red book. In spite of these issues, I think the honor code is an irreplaceable opportunity for learning. As students, we are challenged by the code to think ethically in everything we do. Category two elections for student solicitors and defense advisors are February 13th.

Category three elections for members of the honor council will follow shortly after.

Srish Sharma, ‘17, is a Chemistry major and Philosophy minor from Denver, Colorado. Contact him at