New College subcommittee refines academic honesty policies

Documents like the Colby Affirmation speak to a standard of intellectual integrity at the College that applies to general conduct, but more precisely to academics.

“Honesty, integrity, and personal responsibility are cornerstones of a Colby education and provide the foundation for scholarly inquiry, intellectual discourse, and an open and welcoming campus community,” reads the introduction of the Student Handbook. “Recognizing that promoting and safeguarding a culture of academic integrity and social accountability requires vigilance and active participation from all members of the community.”

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The Diamond Building

This introduction applies directly to a larger issue at the College, namely the College’s response to students who violate these standards of integrity. Violations include plagiarizing, cheating, misappropriating material or otherwise failing to be honest in their work. Feeling that the current process was inadequate, the AAC-CAC Academic Honesty Policy Joint Working Group sought faculty, a committee of deans, students and professors to meet and revise this process. The changes they discussed will go into effect next year.

“There was no particular incident, but we got a sense on the faculty side that faculty were increasingly unhappy with the appeals process,” Assistant Professor of Mathematics Scott Taylor said. “Furthermore, a number of faculty and students involved with the affirmation wanted to see student voices brought in.”

The new policy would involve establishing an Academic Honesty Review Board, consisting of students, professors and the Dean of Students. It would be headed by a tenured professor who would act as the Coordinator of Academic Integrity (CAI). One student and one professor would be appointed to each case, and each appointed student and faculty member would receive training for serving on cases from the Academic Honesty Review Board.

“The real goal is to give students a voice, promote academic honesty on campus, and allow students to take ownership of it,” Taylor said. “We want to provide more resources for faculty members to ensure that they’re not on their own in cases of dishonesty and that any review process is consistent for similar cases.”

Under the current policy, if a professor suspects that a student has committed academic dishonesty, he or she would look into that incident on their own. That professor would then report the incident to the Dean of Students’ office and hold a hearing. The new policy will take an investigative stance on potential infractions rather than the current hearing model. According to the proposal for the new system, “if the student does not accept responsibility, the CAI will initiate the investigative and response process, which includes the interview process with the student, the instructor and relevant parties.” The exact definition of academic honesty would still be left up to the professor.

In the past, there has been some misunderstanding concerning academic integrity, as the term is never explicitly defined in the Student Handbook. Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology and Coordinator of Multicultural Student Programs and Support Joe Atkins says that this lack of a standardized definition is not an oversight of the administration. “It’s up to professors to define explicitly what is acceptable and not acceptable within their discipline or within their class. And I think that can really vary by discipline.”

Though there is overlap on more general ideas, there are distinct differences between professors’ definitions of what exactly constitutes academic integrity. “I define it as being deliberately deceptive about any aspect of work for a course, whether a paper, an exam, a quiz, or a presentation,” Director of the Farnham Writers’ Center and Assistant Professor of Writing Paula Harrington said in an e-mail correspondence. “It also covers misleading a faculty member, for example, about why a student has asked for an extension on written work.”

On the other hand, Taylor explained that within the mathematics department, the definition of academic honesty is slightly different. “In Mathematics, there’s often not a lot of leeway for rewording, [as] we don’t expect students to cite a 19th century mathematician for standard results in Calculus, for example,” he said. “Professors have the right to define academic honesty and dishonesty in their course. Of course, they need to make their expectations clear to their students.”

The initiatives professors take to prevent academic dishonesty varies from discipline to discipline and from professor to professor. Assistant Professor of History and East Asian Studies Elizabeth LaCouture has students write a paper about academic dishonesty and intellectual ownership as a first assignment in each of her classes. Atkins tries to personalize his essay assignments so that students will work independently.

Douglas Professor of Economics and Finance Randy Nelson focuses on the way in which he sets up his exams. “I put the formulas on the exams so people won’t try to use crib sheets with the formulas written on them,” Nelson said.

Taylor hopes that the new policy will not only help faculty deal with cases of academic dishonesty effectively, but also help the College become a place where having academic integrity is synonymous with being a student. “The goal is to move Colby to a place where academic honesty is part of the culture here—where both students and faculty work to making academic honesty an intrinsic part of the our college community.”