The Honor Council aims for change in challenging times

June 11, 2018

The Duke Honor Council had Kushal Kadakia at hello.

“On opening night of orientation week,” recalls Kadakia, a rising senior biology and public policy major. That first night of O-week, all freshmen gathered in the lacrosse-stadium bleachers. Among presentations by luminaries like Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek ’76, M.H.A. ’78, LL.M. ’93, the Honor Council chair gave a speech about the Duke community standard and unfurled a banner bearing its three principles.

A community standard of behavior! To a driven high-school student, someone who had just made his way into Duke, it felt like the stuff. A standard; a high bar. So when the first opportunity arose he applied—and he made it onto the Honor Council. But no chills. In the first place, after the first night, that banner got folded and put away. In the second place, meetings. That’s what the Honor Council seemed to be about: having meetings. Among his classmates, “most people didn’t even know the text of the community standard,” Kadakia recalls.

“I felt like what we were doing, no one cared about.”

That’s either disappointing or dispiritingly predictable. We inhabit a world of #MeToo moments, of a parade of CEOs and public servants being caught in flagrant lies or merely in flagrante, of everyone from Volkswagen to Wells Fargo adopting cheating as a corporate strategy and succeeding, at least as long as they don’t get caught. We look to students for hope for the coming generation—and sometimes find instead evidence that the failures of their parents’ generation have not left them unmarked. “Exaggerating on your résumé?” one Duke student remarked on a 2011 survey of student ethics. “My mom TOLD me to do that.” So students like Kadakia and his cohort on the Honor Council have work to do.

On the other hand, maybe in a time like this, the work of the Honor Council can make a difference. Quick cut to spring 2018, to McDougle Middle School in Chapel Hill, where the Honor Council prepares to make its first-ever off-campus presentation. Shai Cullop, a social-studies teacher at McDougle, was part of a team that reached out to the Duke Honor Council for help because the teachers found that their students were ethically at sea. “I think we’re relying more on the parents to provide those messages,” she says. “And sometimes that gets lost in translation.” Though McDougle students tended to know that, say, plagiarism was against the rules, “they don’t understand the bigger integrity piece. So that’s going to be important for them to hear from the Duke students.”

Three Duke Honor Council members stand in front of Cullop’s class of eighth-graders, flinging out challenging questions. “We’ll be introducing you to aspects of integrity, and what honor means,” freshman Noah Lanier says, slowly pacing in front of them. “To get things started, we’re going to pose what we call ethical inquiries to you.” He describes a situation in which Robin Hood robs a bank, with the intent of distributing the stolen money to the poor, and the eighth-graders are asked to consider themselves witnesses. One of the other Honor Council students hangs up signs on opposite walls of the classroom: One reads, “leave the crime scene” and the other reads, “report.”

“Is Robin Hood wrong?” Lanier asks. “You’ve got to answer.” They do; in a hubbub of screeching chairs and giggles, the eighth-graders walk to one side of the classroom or the other, with a few choosing the uncertainty of standing in the middle.

The tone of the discussion emerges from the first moment, when Lanier sees where most of the kids end up in the shuffle. “Oh my goodness—‘Leave the crime scene,’ ” he says. “Oh, I’m going to have fun with you guys.”

For the next hour they do have fun. They debate the ethical course of action toward Robin Hood, the poor, and the people whose money was in that bank. Then they advance to other inquiries—an overly complex one involving two Jean Valjeans that leaves the kids a little perplexed, and more relatable discussions of plagiarism and cheating that have them fiercely engaged, debating, considering, even changing one another’s opinions. The Honor Council members keep the students talking by rewarding them with T-shirts and stickers lauding integrity. “Integrity over image” says one sticker, and Lanier explains to one student that cheating, for example, offers the image of accomplishment. “But the benefits that we seem to get from cheating don’t matter nearly as much as having integrity, I mean that personal character. It’s a set of values we’re trying to instill.”

Instilling a set of values is where the Honor Council lives. The presentation to middle-schoolers was hardly the only undertaking the council took as it tried to rebrand itself this past academic year. Duke’s first honor code was adopted in 1993, and the council, now led by Kadakia, used the occasion of the code’s twenty-fifth anniversary to try to bring honor into a far more visible role on campus. The council produced monthly panel discussions on topics like academic and research ethics, athletic integrity, and sexual misconduct. They ordered plaques of the community standard and hung them in classrooms all over East and West Campus. They created posters of different members of the council explaining what honor means to them and hung them on the Bryan Center plaza. They even put a box in the Brodhead Center where students could anonymously submit ethical dilemmas: “Someone cheated in my math class… I told no one… I still don’t know what the right thing to do is.” “Is it cheating if you cheat on a class that teaches you how to cheat?”

And by the way, that banner doesn’t get folded and stored now. It hung in the East Campus Marketplace lobby during first term. “You’re a freshman, taking your first midterm,” Kadakia says. “And the community standard is up there on the wall.” That’s got to have an effect, he says.

The year culminated in a series of events during Integrity Week in March—from a Censored Women’s Film Festival at the Rubenstein Arts Center to public presentations with Duke scholars and administrators; from a community-focused discussion with Durham mayor Steve Schewel ’73, Ph.D. ’82 to the final event, a discussion at the Brodhead Center with three generations of Honor Council chairs hosted by Rubenstein Fellow and former Federal Reserve Board governor Sarah Raskin.

Clearly, this is not the Honor Council that had meetings and vanished.

IN FACT, SOMETHING HAS CHANGED regarding Duke and an honor code, and despite the rapid change this year, it’s changed over the long haul. For most of Duke’s history, people didn’t pay attention to the honor code because one didn’t exist. Duke was slow off the mark regarding honor. “Duke doesn’t have an honor-code history,” says associate provost Noah Pickus, who for more than a decade directed the Kenan Institute for Ethics and has advised the council for that long. “It’s not UVA. It’s not part of the culture.” He speaks of institutions like the University of Virginia, Washington and Lee, West Point, and Davidson—schools whose applicants sing of their honor codes the way Duke applicants praise DukeEngage and Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Yet honor is important at Duke, Pickus says, and he lauds the approach Kadakia and his council have taken to raise its profile. “The early students, working with Elizabeth [Hanford Dole ’58], made the argument that though we tend to think at universities everything is about reason, an equally strong tradition is that how we behave is shaped by ritual and habits and the community that supports that. And that you need both. You need rituals like an honor-code signing that’s public.”

Yes—Elizabeth Hanford Dole, in 1957, was part of the group of students who created Duke’s first attempt at a formal honor code. “To my mind, we have one major purpose in passing this code,” she said at the time. “The transfer of responsibility in this college community to the students themselves.” The women seemed to agree with her, voting overwhelmingly in favor of some sort of honor code and in favor of the suggested code, in particular. The men, not so much—more than three-quarters of men voted against the proposed code, though 50.5 percent of men were willing to agree that some sort of honor standard might be nice.

In 1965, Duke again considered an undergraduate honor code, raising such emotions that the Chronicle described it as a “war-torn issue.” Elizabeth Hanford’s desire for students to fully accept responsibility for their own behavior returned as a theme. Joe Schwab ’67, at the time a sophomore on the student senate, supported the code: “It instills a sense in the students that they and not a super-imposed authority, are responsible for their conduct.” He expressed frustration that students complained about what he called “the administration’s ‘big-brother’ attitude,” yet resisted policing themselves through an honor code. Resist indeed: The 1965 code lost narrowly among the women on East Campus and on West suffered the same three-to-one trouncing as its predecessor.

It’s not like Duke was a chaos of lawless dishonor; there were a judicial board and consequences for misdeeds as there are on every campus. “This didn’t mean there was no honor on the Duke campus,” Kadakia says now. “But there was no body for integrity.”

Which was something of an issue. Refusing to adopt an honor code is, in some ways, just like Hanford Dole explained: a way of leaving responsibility for student conduct in the hands of what Schwab called “a super-imposed authority.” If you’re only behaving honorably to avoid getting caught, is that honorable? “I thought that was so interesting,” Kadakia goes on. “At the city-state we call Duke University, the rules we have were all sanction-based.” Somebody needed to lead the way toward more responsibility and better behavior for intrinsic reasons. When you’re talking about Duke, that usually means “here comes Terry Sanford,” and here comes Terry Sanford.

In 1978, Sanford asked entering freshmen of the Class of 1982 to think through a new honor code, something that “would propose honor for the sake of honor, not merely caution and care in order to evade the penalties of law.” Inquiry at the university should be uninhibited, Sanford said in a note he wrote to entering freshmen of the Class of 1984, but that didn’t mean students should follow no rules: “Even if there is value-free inquiry, there cannot be value-free life,” Sanford wrote. Eventually Sanford formed the President’s Honor Council, which has become today’s Honor Council.

In 1993, Duke instituted its first true undergraduate honor code, requiring students to act honorably and to report it if they witness others failing to do so. The code got pushback from the start: “I know when I’m taking a test I’m not personally scoping out the room for cheaters,” said then-sophomore Julie Brashears ’96. Legendary English professor Reynolds Price ’55 said he’d refuse anonymous reports of wrongdoing.

This slow progress of the honor code bears consideration, especially in regard to the natural inclination to connect this year’s focus with current events. Rising sophomore Nick Santangelo will be president of the Honor Council in 2018-19, and he says that though current events drive discussion and remind the council of the importance of honor, the council thrives through the efforts of people who don’t need chaotic public events to remind them of honor and integrity. “The chaos of the real world isn’t the driving force for getting involved in Honor Council,” he says. “But it’s a force for remaining involved.”

Pickus notes that the Honor Council is not the student Judicial Board, which plays a more quotidian, enforcement-based role. He returns again to the two approaches to integrity—the rational, consequences-based approach (it’s Kantian, he says) of the Judicial Board, and the more Aristotelian approach of the Honor Council, focusing on the habits and practices of the community. “This is the community they know,” he says. “They take Duke very seriously, and they want honor to matter. It’s much more proximate to them as a habit, as a virtue, than as a set of reasons.”

Weekly council meetings include time set aside for just such ethical discussions, and current events commonly arise: the responsibility to vote, for example. But the council, Santangelo says, actively seeks not people motivated by current events but “the internally motivated individuals.”

Good thing. By 1997, the Chronicle wrote articles citing statistics proving that cheating was increasing rather than decreasing, and, in 1998, it called the code “riddled with philosophical and practical inconsistencies.” In 1999, by participating in a project run by the Center for Academic Integrity (then based at Duke), in which students were surveyed on their actions, Duke learned that the Chronicle had a point: 38 percent of surveyed students had copied material verbatim and had not even footnoted it in a paper; 37 percent said they’d falsified lab data. And fully 45 percent admitted to unauthorized collaboration.

PRESIDENT NAN KEOHANE, faced with bad news, responded honorably, Kadakia says. “She did what anyone would call an act of moral courage: She went public with the results.” In a piece she wrote for the Chronicle, she quoted an answer on the survey: “As long as students feel the responsibility for academic honesty rests elsewhere (faculty, administrators) there can be no meaningful honor code here.” Noting schools like the University of Virginia and West Point, famed for their honor codes, Keohane echoed the student’s sentiment: “If Duke is ever going to become ‘an honor code school,’ I think any approach to the cheating problem based on mutual distrust is doomed.” In 2003, the council created the community standard, not dissimilar to the current one. That final step toward full responsibility—responsibility for not just your own actions but for those of the whole community—came in 2007, when Duke added the final line to its standard: “I will act if the Standard is compromised.”

That’s a complex pledge to make. Even in his first letter to the students, Sanford discussed “reluctance to ‘rat’ on fellow students.” That’s the sticking point of an honor code for this past year’s freshmen, as well. “It would depend on the anonymity of it,” says Spencer Ganus, an English major from Los Angeles, asked over dinner in the Marketplace about how she’d respond to honor-code violations. Approaching someone she suspected of cheating or informing a professor seemed extreme. “It depends on the level of severity.” On the other hand, “I mean, I signed the standard.” Her tablemate Sayle Evarts, a public policy major from Massachusetts by way of Abu Dhabi, agrees. “It depends on the situation,” she says. She would not be likely to disrupt an exam if she saw cheating, but she might inform a professor. As for the standard itself, though she and Ganus both remembered signing the banner and it hanging in the Marketplace, neither could say much about it. “I’m assuming it talks about plagiarism,” Evarts says. “I’m assuming it talks about academic integrity. That’s it?”

At another table, Daniel Kingsbury, an electrical and computer engineering major from Greensboro, rattled off the standard’s first two points, about not lying, cheating, or stealing in academic endeavors and being honorable “in all contexts.” As for the third, though, that rat clause? “It’s pretty unlikely, seeing as how I didn’t recall that,” he says. He felt he’d very likely try to steer a friend toward better behavior—“you’re here for a reason,” he says. “You clearly can do your work,” so he’d see cheating as harming his friend. As for approaching a stranger or informing on someone in a complex situation?

That’s “placing this unrealistic expectation” on students,” he says. “It’s not a good idea to force someone to sign off on something like that. It’s this almost pretentious idea of Duke. It’s highly unrealistic.” Everyone knows cheating is wrong; everyone knows they’ll get in trouble if they’re caught, he says, so signing the code—on the banner, on every exam, on lab notes, on papers—doesn’t change anything. On the other hand, he was far from critical of the notion of the code itself: “That last clause should be, ‘I will do my best to act in an appropriate fashion,’” which he thought wouldn’t leave students with two equally unhappy options: either confronting a situation they can’t manage or feeling that they had failed the honor code. But Jarrett Smith, an economics major from Georgia, embraced the code: “Personally, I feel like I should take some sort of measure” if he sees a misdeed. “As a student body as a whole, I think we do a pretty good job. I was pretty surprised.” His friend Julian Lewis, a public policy major from Charlotte, was not surprised: “It’s on every assignment I do,” he says of the community standard. “I sign it like five times a week.”

MAYBE THAT HELPS. Duke had a recent cheating scandal, in 2014, when students in a computer science class seemed to have cheated; the line between cheating and collaboration seems highly blurred, especially when students work together on code. Eerily similar “unpermitted collaboration” scandals have recently emerged at Stanford and Harvard, in the Stanford case in a class that urged students to share “ideas, hints, and debugging help, or problem-solving strategies and program structure.” Clearly the availability of information online, the ease of sharing it, and the focus at Duke (and elsewhere) on collaboration further complicates an already complex issue. Owen Astrachan, associate director of undergraduate studies and professor of the practice of computer science, says students can sometimes find answers to previous years’ unchanged questions online. In a coding class, the standard “Can I compare my homework answers with yours?” might yield an e-mail with lines of code from a solution found online, and those can easily be copied into another student’s answer. Automated tools easily find the copied code, and what to students seemed like improving an answer with help from a friend becomes a scandal. Some instructors now provide homework answers to encourage students to spend their time thinking and comparing, not simply getting a right answer for a grade.

Meanwhile, cheating scandals have occurred even at the Air Force Academy and the University of Virginia. An honor code doesn’t by itself create honor. Nor for that matter does being Honor Council chair, a position once held by currently beleaguered Missouri governor Eric Greitens ’96; Kadakia calls his predicament “a reminder that character can’t be something that you preach, but more importantly must be something that you do.”

That notion—that the honor code is less about preventing cheating than about a way for students to engage with their world—came up in the capstone panel discussion of Integrity Week, moderated by Sarah Raskin. About forty attendees filled a Brodhead Center conference room, enjoying a free Indian dinner and listening to the panel, which included Kadakia, Alex Parrish ’87, and Bronwyn Lewis Friscia ’08, all one-time Honor Council chairs. Raskin asked whether at twenty-five years the standard had stood the test of time. Parrish, who had been selected as part of the first president’s Honor Council and had been the first Honor Council chair to speak at convocation, laughed. “The one I worked on didn’t,” he said, “because it’s gone.” And he instantly brought up the first question he gets when honor codes come up: “Does it have a rat clause in it?”

Parrish went on to echo Kingsbury. In the face of injustice, one can choose to disobey a law and take the consequences—or to blow up a building. When encountering dishonorable action, people face important choices, and the standard should recognize that. “It would make me happier if there were an acknowledgement that you had an obligation to meet your own internal standards,” not just the words of the Duke standard. “The real problem is getting people to buy into these things,” he said. “The words matter, but it’s the work that matters more.” Friscia agreed. “I have no doubt that this version will be rewritten,” she said. “It’s more the process of a community appraising and recommitting. That is healthy and good.”

Kadakia, too, agreed that Duke’s community standard is, and should be, a work in progress. “For me the point is not the words in the standard,” he said. “It’s the words that people remember.” He’d like to see the word “I” in that famous rat clause—“I will act”— changed to “we,” putting the “community” into the community standard, but he’s happy to let the next generation of Honor Council members work on that. “It’s quite an experience to see the generations,” he said of the panel discussion that ended Integrity Week. “Knowing that one day when I come back it will have evolved.”

As it has already—from failed attempts at an honor code, to an honor code, to a community standard, to a community standard containing an obligation for action. The Honor Council itself has moved from the quiet group Kadakia joined to an active group sending programs into the community. Members of the Honor Council put themselves forward as leaders: “We were engaged in ethical leadership,” Friscia says of her time on the council, and that dedication remains. “We are so fortunate,” she says, “to be models of moral courage in an era when we need it.”

Parrish, who as Honor Council chair began the tradition of addressing incoming students and parents at convocation, remembered the response of then dean of the chapel Will Willimon. Parrish had exhorted the new students to challenge themselves, to think not just about rules and consequences but about what he notes even the nation’s founder called their “sacred honor.” After he finished, Willimon “leaned over,” Parrish recalls. “He put his hand on me and said, ‘So you’re an optimist.’ ”

“That was a perfect expression of what I had expressed,” Parrish says. “We can be better. We have an obligation to be better.” Generations of Honor Councils have tried to lead the way, each cycle raising the bar a bit; the current generation has consciously upped its game. Santangelo, the incoming president, turned down a full scholarship at Washington and Lee, an honor-code perennial. “If I would have gone there it would have been an ideal honor situation,” he says. “Here it’s a project to pursue. Overall, Duke was an environment that I preferred to be in, so why not just make change?”

As for whether they’ll have an effect, take Kadakia’s advice—come back in a generation and see.

  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.