By Alyssa Young 11C
It was a freshman’s worst nightmare: just weeks into his first semester, he was accused of cheating on a Calculus II test.
“It was actually the first test I took at Emory,” says the economics and mathematics double major, now a senior, who asked that his name be withheld.
After an anxiety-filled, semester-long investigation, Emory’s student Honor Council ultimately found him innocent. “It was really terrible because it was hanging over my head all semester,” he says. “I just thought it was a really slow process. It wasn’t very informative and there was no one that I could really talk to about what to do.”
Yet, while reflecting on his case and the difficult semester that ensued, the student remembers that council members were always considerate, never accusatory. “They were asking questions to kind of engage me and have me explain myself to prove myself innocent,” he says. “That made me feel like, yes, the students were on my side.”
That is assuredly true, according to Meggan Arp, assistant dean of undergraduate education, who oversees all Honor Council cases. “Each one of these cases we take to heart,” Arp says. “Every piece has an element of the human experience. Obviously no one just says, ‘Okay, today I am going to cheat,’ so there has to be an extenuating circumstance. We deal with all of those extenuating circumstances.”
The Honor Council is a somewhat mysterious group—“the heroes of the dark,” as Arp calls them. “People know about the Honor Code,” says Honor Council member Evan Dunn 10Ox 12C. “When they come in as freshmen, they all get an orientation on it, and sign the pledge. Every syllabus they will get at this college has a whole section devoted to it. Before you sign half your tests, there’s an honor code pledge. But in regards to Honor Council procedure, I understand how lots of people don’t know.”
Molly Magruder 11C, the council’s cochair, is aware that they’re not always the most popular kids on campus. But, “among the faculty, among some students who have been found not guilty or even guilty, there’s a lot of respect for what we do. We have a really strong council, and our ability to be professional—treating the accused student like a human being, showing them respect—has given us a pretty good reputation.”
Upholding that reputation are twenty council members, two of whom are chairs and do not participate directly in investigations. Sans robes and powdered wigs, five students weigh in on each reported case of honor code infraction, with one faculty adviser present to offer sanction suggestions and ensure that procedure is followed.
All rising juniors and seniors are eligible to submit an application for the Honor Council. Of some eighty to ninety applicants, around ten new students are chosen. “They go through a very rigorous election process, have to have close to perfect GPAs, and be leaders in the Emory community,” Arp says. “I think that’s a testimony to the quality and caliber of our Honor Council students.”
John Ford, senior vice president and dean of Campus Life, believes it is important that the Honor Council is made up primarily of students, a practice he says is quite common.
“Students ‘overrepresented’ on the Honor Council are in the best position to foster and maintain a culture of academic integrity because they can be symbols, spokespersons, and role models for other students,” he says.
The Honor Council generally deals with some sixty to eighty-five cases each semester, ranging anywhere from fraudulent registration to plagiarism to lying about a death in the family in order to gain academic advantage. The fall 2010 semester saw forty-six cases. Of the 419 cases reported during the past five years, 225 students were found guilty, seventy-three were not guilty, and the rest were either dismissed or are pending.
“The way I like to look at this, being an optimist, is that 99 percent of the students in any one year are not being accused of a violation of the honor code,” says Frank McDonald, chemistry professor and a volunteer faculty adviser for the Honor Council.
A significant source of cases is students for whom English is a second language, who often have difficulty learning the complex rules for using and citing sources. An educational sanction is being created to deal with cases in which students genuinely don’t recognize fault. It will require the student to complete an online ESL training course to clarify citation and plagiarism guidelines. That way, Arp says, “We can put a big-picture spin into our sanctioning and not just have it be purely punitive.”
Dunn chose to get involved with the Honor Council for a simple reason. “Honestly, it’s the ethical thing to do,” he says. “If you think about it, any educational institution that’s worth its salt has to have a certain integrity to the work they produce.” In fact, Dunn once reported a friend and group project member for an honor code offense. “It wasn’t vengeful,” he says, “it was my job.”
And the most challenging part of that job, he adds, is not getting jaded by the number of cases the council deals with. “I’d rather let ten guilty people off than punish one innocent person. As crazy as some of these stories can be, usually those are the ones that are true,” he says. “You have to remember that people who are innocent do come before you.”