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Insufficient honor code

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MARCH 22, 2013

UC Berkeley’s new honor code misses the mark. Its apparent goal, to proactively foster an atmosphere of integrity on campus, is praiseworthy. But the code’s vague language is likely to render it ineffective.

The one-sentence honor code plainly states that “As a member of the UC Berkeley community, I act with honesty, integrity, and respect for others.” Developed through a collaboration between the ASUC, the Graduate Assembly and various campus officials, the code is intended to spark much-needed campuswide conversations among students, faculty and staff members about how to ensure that its principles are embedded in the overall culture at UC Berkeley.

Rightfully understanding that the Internet has warped modern conceptions of academic misconduct, the code is intentionally flexible. That’s understandable, but its current form is simply too unclear. In order to have any chance of it being effective, its proponents need to provide some guidance about the complex and abstract issues it seeks to tackle.

Take plagiarism, for instance. The code’s references to “honesty” and “integrity” can obviously be construed to mean an implicit understanding that the academic work of students must be original.  The code’s proponents apparently intend to leave much of the interpretation up to individuals. Yet because the code is so succinct and open-ended, it is unlikely to have any impact on how students approach their academics. The code will probably do little to deter those intent on cheating from doing so. It would be more helpful to impress upon students what plagiarism is and its harmful effects rather than provide a vague standard.

The code may very well “catalyze a series of ongoing conversations about our principles and practices,” as a statement on the ASUC’s honor code webpage proclaims, but the end result of those conversations may be more jumbled than it is productive. It will more likely produce inconsistency and conflict between varying interpretations of the code’s intent. And it is so brief and subjective that for many students, it will be easily forgotten.

If these problems surface, then hopefully the committee charged with monitoring the code’s adoption will consider ways of clarifying the code. So far, its one sentence provides a good starting point, but it also needs a set of specific guidelines or more detailed information about targeted areas of concern, like plagiarism. Hopefully, some of this clarification will happen at student orientations and training programs for graduate student instructors, but that needs to be codified somehow.

The UC Berkeley community should appreciate the new code for attempting to promote honesty, integrity and fairness on campus. Violations of these principles are important to address in a preventive fashion. But the code needs more work — as it stands, it will likely invoke more confusion than “entry points” for guided discussions.

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MARCH 21, 2013