Honor code plaques are unneeded

CAMPUS ISSUES: The effort to install more than 400 plaques bearing campus’s honor code suggests students lack honesty, integrity and respect.

The campus honor code, which was implemented during the 2012-13 school year, is a good-faith attempt to emphasize the importance of honesty and integrity in academics and social life at UC Berkeley. But the installation of plaques bearing the honor code in more than 400 classrooms throughout campus is an ineffective, and thus wasteful, means of promoting the values the honor code seeks to engender.

The honor code was originally conceived as a simple, positive and memorable alternative to the much more legalistic Campus Code of Student Conduct and the lofty and aspirational Principles of Community. In many circumstances, the honor code is a useful way to improve student conduct, especially when it comes to academic honesty. It reads, “As a member of the UC Berkeley community, I act with honesty, integrity, and respect for others.”

It is most effective when it engages students directly, such as when professors ask their students to agree in writing to abide by the honor code before taking an exam. In these targeted instances when the possibility of plagiarism and cheating is highest, it can be effective for students who already tend to act with honesty, integrity and respect.

The intended effect of installing hundreds of honor code plaques across campus is quite different, however, than using the code for direct engagement. Instead of reaffirming the values of honesty and integrity in situations in which students might be inclined by stress to do otherwise, the ubiquity of the plaques instead seeks to foster the values the honor code contains in the student body as a general principle all the time. But the effort to make the honor code more of a part of campus consciousness suggests students do not already hold such values. In effect, the plaques feel like a paternalistic kind of moral guidance, as though students need constant reminders of how to properly behave everywhere they turn. Placing the plaques throughout campus suggests the committee in charge of the honor code perceives some amount of moral bankruptcy among students. This inherent distrust is alienating, so students will probably be unlikely to take its message to heart.

The passive way the plaquing campaign hopes to foster student morality is also inherently contradictory — it urges us to do good by our own principles while simultaneously inundating students with such principles as if they aren’t intrinsic.

The moral authority the placement of plaques throughout campus classrooms presupposes is condescending to students who should be trusted to already assume the values of honesty, integrity and respect. It is unlikely that the plaques will help make such values a greater part of the campus consciousness than they already are or that they will reduce specific incidences of academic dishonesty. The honor code plaques are well intentioned, but will ultimately have little effect.