In-search-of, or ISO, emails aren’t unusual at Harvey Mudd College. But in the last week, the number of students hoping to get their stolen skateboards back has been startling. Similarly, during the recent Northern Lights party, AirPods and other personal property were stolen out of rooms that students had offered as bathrooms for partygoers, prompting the locking of doors and balconies at the next social gathering.
Though these thefts might seem insignificant out of context, they carry special implications at HMC, which prides itself on its honor code — a trust-based system where students and faculty rely on one another to have integrity, care for one another and respect the rules. Theoretically, students should feel comfortable leaving their valuables unattended, not out of carelessness, but because they trust other Mudders to act with good intentions. In the same vein, faculty are comfortable giving take-home tests with no proctoring because they have faith in the honor code and students’ genuine desire to learn, as opposed to gaining a couple extra points.
In general, students are less physically barred from dishonest or immoral actions at HMC because of the honor code’s indirect enforcement of the rules. Instead, they are offered more opportunities — like 24/7 access to certain classrooms and labs — in return for maintaining integrity without supervision.
The honor code relies on a stable environment of trust, where students first experience its benefits and then feel more inclined to abide by its rules. For example, by watching others taking unsupervised tests, which allows for test-taking flexibility and comfortability, or leaving one’s laptop in a classroom and then coming back to it untouched, Mudders gain confidence in the honor code and are more likely to continue fostering its effectiveness.
On the other hand, a noticeable increase in honor code violations puts this confidence in danger, threatening to unravel the basis of the contract. If Mudders become increasingly afraid that the honor code isn’t being followed, they are less likely to reap its benefits, setting off a vicious cycle where the honor code becomes increasingly ineffectual.
In order to understand how to stabilize trust in the honor code, it’s important to understand the nature of such contracts. It’s easy to wonder why HMC is unique in its usage of an honor code, and as a result, some may hypothesize that Mudders must be more trustworthy than the average student. Yet, the success of the honor code has little to do with individual character; rather, the social norm and established expectations actually shape individual behavior instead of the other way around. Studies have corroborated this claim; for example, in comparisons of schools with and without an honor code policy, students’ self-reported academic dishonesty and cheating show no changes. To explain this, other analyses have found that social factors like norms and expectations are more influential in explaining dishonesty than the characteristics of an individual.
This makes sense — I’m sure we can all agree that others’ behavior influences our own, especially when it comes to following the rules. Watching our peers abide by regulations makes it awkward for us to break them, and vice versa. This might already be obvious, but its implications for the honor code’s stability are more important; its survival depends largely on each individual’s efforts to maintain it. In turn, this means that when the honor code might appear to be in danger, a collective effort to reaffirm its principles contributes significantly to restoring it.
Mudders and HMC faculty need to keep the honor code’s nature in mind, recognizing that any small infraction isn’t a clever trick used to leverage the contract’s leniency, but rather a dangerous action that, when repeated enough times, may threaten its existence. In the same vein, if they witness any unravelings of the contract, they should have faith in its values, consciously reaffirming them through their actions and taking charge of the honor code. Then, maybe the ISOs will return to normal levels and hopefully, the skateboards will be returned to their rightful owners.
Serena Mao HM ’25 is from Fremont, California. She’s holding onto her skateboard for dear life.