When I came to Harvey Mudd College almost five years ago, I found a place that I was both excited and proud to call home. Then, the integrity of the honor code began to erode.
I went to an extremely small high school in Kansas, and on the front page of every single graded assignment or test, every student hand-wrote the school’s honor code and signed their name below; this was the environment I had come to love. That’s why Mudd’s honor code helped draw me to Claremont. In fact, for many students, signing the honor code as a freshman is one of our most memorable experiences.
I have worked as a grader, a tutor and a teaching assistant at Harvey Mudd for five semesters. Every semester, I am forced to send the same dreaded email to the professor that someone’s assignment looks far too much like someone else’s.
Sadly, the 2020-2021 remote academic year saw a barrage of calls for self-reports and judiciary board cases. During the online year alone, there were 54 academic violations that made it to a judiciary board case. The case proceedings showed that, in the majority of cases, the resolution was to receive zero credit on the assignments they were caught cheating on and to write a one-page letter of reflection. There is no mention of any sort of permanent record for the outside world and no real deterrent. Unserious punishments like these are a slap on the wrist for the guilty student and a slap in the face to every non-cheating student taking classes alongside them.
But the Mudd student body’s shift away from honor didn’t go away with the pandemic. “Maybe younger students just hadn’t yet been informed properly about the importance of academic integrity,” I thought. “Maybe once we return from the remote learning year, it will be different.”
It hasn’t been.
In the past two semesters, I’ve seen several bystanders keep quiet as their peers openly –– and proudly, no less –– admit to taking advantage of one another by cheating on a solo assignment. For context, the syllabus for one of the courses in question stated that “each problem has a 30-minute time limit, and they are to be completed independently, without consulting other students (including tutors), your course notes, professors, or any other sources.”
I was surprised, alarmed and seriously shaken by this cavalier attitude towards cheating. How could someone be so shameless, so uncaring?
Don’t get it twisted: I’m approaching this situation from a point of sympathy. Many changes made to class grading stem from Mudd’s effort to be sensitive to students with testing anxiety. For example, these solo problems were made to count more heavily towards the course grade in return for removing a second midterm. The compassion from professors to create more equitable classrooms is failing because students are abusing it.
Still, it’s important to remember that unpunished cheating comes at the expense of honest, hard-working students. One first-year friend in particular brings me joy every time she comes to me at lunch or after class, excited to tell me that she figured out her solo problem. Cheating students are cheapening every honest student’s effort, not to mention the potential effect on any curve in the course. Where did Mudd’s honor go? And what will come of Mudd without it?
The potentially irrevocable harm inflicted on Mudd via current students’ disregard for the honor code is on its way to tarnishing our school’s reputation –– and the results could be disastrous, especially for women.
As I am visiting graduate schools and testing out the environment at other schools, I am keenly aware that Mudd is still a far more accepting and balanced institution than many others. When I go out into the field of science, I am at least armed with the reputation Mudd has for producing the excellent scientists who came before me. Unless cheating students put in the work and learn material, younger students won’t benefit from this –– current and future female-identifying students will be directly and unequivocally harmed.
We need to appropriately educate our students on the importance of the honor code, and there need to be appropriate repercussions for cheating.
Some students argue that because they personally don’t cheat, they shouldn’t have to give up the benefits the honor code affords us like take-home exams. That is exactly the point. If we let the honor code die, we will no longer be afforded these benefits. If we let our peers cheat, professors will not be able to put their trust in us.
We have to hold each other accountable — if not for you, then at least for those counting on the armor of Mudd’s reputation to help them navigate the patriarchal post-grad scientific industry.
Ella Blake HM ’23 is from Lawrence, KS. She really likes swimming and painting.