Trust flourishes when students enforce their own honor code

In my senior year of high school, I had a class that was taught by one of the most untrusting people I've ever encountered. This teacher would check each student's hands to make sure nobody wrote notes that could help during an exam.

I wanted my college career to be different from this experience. I wanted to come to a place where the faculty trusted the students and, in turn, the students trusted one another.

Now I'm a senior at the University of Richmond in Virginia. When students first arrive here, they are amazed that they can leave the classroom during an exam or that they may even take the exam home. Why should a professor trust students not to cheat on an exam? Why should new, unproven members of our community have this much trust placed in them?

The answer is simple. They are expected to abide by the honor code.

This code embodies the scholarship, integrity, and trustworthiness that form the foundation of our university. As chairman of the Richmond College Honor Council, I have come to realize that the honor code means different things to different people.

One of the more controversial aspects of our honor system is the Statement of Non-Toleration. This makes it an honor-code violation not to report another student whom you know has committed a violation.

This aspect of the code, which is commonly referred to on campus as "tattling," will no doubt continue to be debated long after I graduate. But I believe this part of the honor code fosters trust among the students, not insecurity that someone will turn them in.

An individual who is accused of breaking the code faces a hearing in which eight peers serve as judges. There must be a finding of clear and convincing evidence in the minds of at least seven of the eight for an accused student to be found guilty.

I have been involved in cases where the deliberation process lasted more than 11 hours. If a student is found guilty, he or she may face separation from the university, suspension for up to six semesters, or lesser sanctions such as failure in a class.

The ability of students to impose these sanctions on their peers has led to numerous discussions among Honor Council members. Some feel it is too much power.

The ability to alter the course of a student's life is not taken lightly. But this code was created by students and for students, and it is the responsibility of the council to protect it. If someone clearly violates the trust of students on campus, we have no hesitation in asking that person to leave.

All college campuses need to create an environment that fosters academic development. Invoking trust among the students is the best way to accomplish this task.

Students reaffirm a pledge with each assignment they hand in and each test they take: "I pledge that I have neither received nor given unauthorized assistance during the completion of this work." We put our hand to the paper and sign this on everything. It is a tremendous facilitator of trust, in that it serves to reinforce the integrity of every student.

The honor-code way of life fosters the free exchange of ideas. Students and faculty find that our code signals to the world outside the university that we are people of character and integrity.

Justin Imperato is a senior at the University of Richmond in Virginia and chairman of the school's Honor Council.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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