The first honor code in America was established in 1779 at The College of William and Mary. It was created at the request of then-Governor Thomas Jefferson, who had graduated from the university in 1762. The code was to be policed by students. Jefferson went on to recommend a similar honor code at the University of Virginia (UVA), but it was never established.
UVA had a tumultuous beginning, rife with conflicts between students and faculty. These battles reached a peak on November 12, 1840, when professor John Davis was shot while trying to disperse a conflict on campus. He refused to identify his assailant, calling on any honorable persons to identify themselves. Shortly thereafter, in 1842, Henry St. George Tucker, an alumnus of the College of William and Mary who had replaced Davis on the UVA faculty, recommended that students submit their examinations with a signed statement declaring their honor and stating that they had received no assistance on the assignment. Although the wording of the honor code has changed over time, it remains in place today. Today, honor offenses at UVA include lying, cheating, and stealing. UVA’s system is also unusual in that it remains student run. Only Princeton University has maintained a student-run honor code since its code was created in 1893.
At most colleges and universities, honor codes address only academic issues. The U.S. federal military academies (the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy) have the strictest honor codes. They govern academics, but also the cadets’ behavior at all times, both on and off campus. A cadet is considered to have violated the honor code when she or he even tolerates another student committing a violation. Cadets must turn in the violator at all of the military academies, with the exception of the U.S. Naval Academy, as its honor code allows observers to confront the accused without formally reporting the violation.
A few universities have established very stringent honor codes. Hampden-Sydney College, an all-male school, has an honor code that covers student behavior on and off campus, and off-campus behavior can be prosecuted. It also considers toleration of violation to be a violation itself, just as the military codes do. Brigham Young University (BYU) also has a very strict honor code, prohibiting drinking, smoking, and premarital sex. Men must be clean and shaven, and no revealing clothing is allowed. The strictness and specificity of BYU’s code reflect the Mormon influence at the university.
How honor codes are enforced differs from campus to campus. In many cases, students vote to ratify the code each year and can suggest changes to it. Some have a specific group that enforces the code, such as Haverford College’s Honor Council. Research suggests that honor codes are effective when they help create a peer culture that reinforces ethical behavior. A survey conducted by the Center for Academic Integrity found that 23% of students at colleges with honor codes reported cheating on a test or exam in the previous year, compared to 45% of students at colleges with no honor code.
Honor codes do not fix all of a school’s problems, of course. In 1951, an academic cheating scandal erupted at West Point, a school with a well-known honor code. At the end, 90 cadets ended up resigning from the academy, including 37 football players. All were found to have violated the school’s honor code when upper classmen “tutored” them.
Research and reports documenting high levels of cheating at colleges and universities have prompted renewed interest in honor codes. In a survey conducted in 2005, approximately half of the college students admitted to at least one serious incident of cheating in the previous academic year, and two-thirds admitted to questionable activity, such as working in a group on assignments when directions specified the work was to be done independently. At the high school level, almost two-thirds of students reported one or more explicit incident of cheating in the previous year. A 2002 study of 12,000 high school students found 74% admitted to cheating in the past year. Author David Callahan has called the United States “a culture of cheats,” asserting that individualism and cut-throat, competitive environments lead many astray.
- Callaghan, D. (2004). The cheating culture: Why more Americans are doing wrong to get ahead. New York: Harcourt.
- Finley, P., & Finley, L. (2006). The sports industry’s war on athletes. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- McCabe, D., & Pavela, G. (2005, March 11). New honor codes for a new generation. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved May 2, 2010, from http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2005/03/11/pavela1