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Editorial -- Addressing Cheating Requires More than Just an Honor Code

The Undergraduate Association is currently exploring the possibility of implementing an honor code in response to increasing concern in the MIT community about academic dishonesty. While any efforts to stem cheating at the Institute are a step in the right direction, attempts to focus these efforts on an honor code are wrong-headed, mere "window dressing" in the place of more substantive programs.

Cheating is a problem here in part because of the enormous pressure put on students by the Institute's high-strung atmosphere. Many students feel that in order to survive, they must take advantage of the "gray areas" of academic honesty, often stretching the limits of collaboration on problem sets until they hand in work which is not their own. Any honor code implemented in such an atmosphere will simply result in a rush of students modifying their cheating techniques to work around the code, at least in their own minds.

Before imposing an honor code on students, the administration and UA should consider making more fundamental changes. The Institute should require professors to clearly state -- in writing, on the syllabus -- the precise levels and forms of collaboration and use of bibles which will be allowed. It is also important that MIT designate someone, perhaps ombudsman Mary P. Rowe, to field students' questions about policies for specific classes. Otherwise, students may feel they are throwing suspicion upon themselves by asking the professor these questions.

The best way to deal with this problem is to make students fully aware that cheating is unprofitable. This is the approach taken by the California Institute of Technology. The Caltech honor code consists of one line: "No member should take advantage of another member of the Caltech community." This simple code is accompanied by a system which emphasizes mutual trust between students and professors. The vast majority of Caltech exams are timed take-home exams, and those given in class are unproctored. Instead of a Committee on Discipline made up of professors and deans, Caltech has a Board of Control, an elected body made up of Caltech students. Reported infractions of the honor code are considered by this body, which metes out its punishments confidentially.

This honor code works because it is fully integrated into the school and is enforced by the students themselves. At Caltech, the honor code has existed since the early days of the school, and the school's policies have been crafted around the code, rather than the reverse. Though it is true that much of Caltech's system might not work at a larger school such as MIT, imposing an honor code on top of the current MIT system denies students the opportunity to show how "honorable" they are. As H. L. Mencken once said, "For every complex problem there is a simple solution -- and it is wrong." Solving the issue of academic dishonesty at MIT requires far more than the simple addition of an honor code.