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Dissent -- Honor Code Will Solve None of the Institute's Problems

Matthew H. Hersch, Jeremy Hylton, Karen Kaplan,

and Joey Marquez


Academic honesty has been passionately discussed on campus during the last several months -- particularly after the 1.00 scandal made national headlines. President Charles M. Vest believes "MIT should seriously consider establishing a student honor code and system." The idea has won support from Undergraduate Associate President Stacy E. McGeever '93 and a majority of The Tech's editorial board.

Unfortunately, an honor code will have no effect on the real problem: students find it profitable to cheat. The Institute must change the educational environment so that cheating is no longer profitable. When that happens, there will be no need for an honor code.

An honor code is a quick fix that only hides the problem from public scrutiny. It does little to stop the cheating that goes on and even less to change the conditions that encourage it. In the future, if students are caught cheating, it will be viewed as surprising and unusual -- after all, the Institute has an honor code that insures students do not cheat.

Associate Provost Sheila E. Widnall '60's opening remarks at the last UA Council meeting reflect this kind of thinking. She objected to use of the word "cheating" in association with MIT students. She also stressed that the outside world must view academic honesty as a concern at MIT if an MIT education is to retain its value.

Widnall and Vest have also emphasized that academic responsibility is a broad issue and one that must be examined fully. Vest argued for an honor code and system "crafted by our students and faculty, and designed to operate in our environment" in the last faculty newsletter. His concern that students and faculty work together to improve the situation is admirable, but he misses the mark: We should not design a system to work in our environment because it is the environment, at least in part, that has created the problem.

The Institute must make fundamental changes in the environment -- changes that continue to support collaboration but clearly demarcate the line between collaborating and cheating. Professors should also make it harder for students to cheat. They can do this by checking more thoroughly for cheating, a lesson learned well by teaching assistants in Introduction to Computers and Engineering Problem Solving (1.00). They can change the way they test students' knowledge, through alternatives like the oral examinations used in Experimental Physics I and II (8.13 and 8.14) and the weekly quizzes that take the place of graded problem sets in Introduction to Solid-State Chemistry (3.091).

After the Institute makes some fundamental changes in the educational system it will probably find that an honor code is no longer necessary. A system that encourages collaboration and helps students to work responsibly does not need an honor code to function effectively. In fact, an honor code may do more harm than good in such an environment, creating only pressure and confusion for students.

Honor codes put some honest students in the uncomfortable position of being obliged to turn in students they suspect of cheating. Despite the simplicity of the honor code at the California Institute of Technology, some students there still fell unduly pressured. Many MIT students may not feel uncomfortable with the possibility of being placed in this position, but for a fraternity brother who must decide between turning in a brother and breaking the honor code, such a decision could be very difficult.

An honor code would also limit the collaboration that occurs in situations where cooperation is allowed and encouraged. A student who is unsure of how actively he can work with classmates on a problem set is likely to be scared away from collaboration by an honor code -- or by the threat of the Committee on Discipline.

In short, an honor code will solve none of MIT's problems. The Institute must avoid the lure of a quick fix and focus on remedying the flaws of the current educational environment.