Is There Any Honor Left in Honor Codes?

Research says honor codes are irrelevant as stand-alone measures

Thursday, November 29, 2012

by Olivia D'Atri '14

PHILADELPHIA (Nov. 28, 2012) — In light of the Harvard cheating scandal, in which 125 students improperly collaborated on a take-home examination last spring, the debate on the effectiveness of honor codes has taken the media by storm. The general consensus seems to be that unless a code is embedded in the right culture — one that is student-led and student-enforced — the code is useless. Many wonder if there is a way to foster such a culture.

For honesty to take root, a sea change must occur within both the students and the educational system, says Ronald L. Dufresne, Ph.D., co-author of "Reconciling Competing Tensions in Ethical Systems: Lessons from the United States Military Academy at West Point," recently published in Group Organization and Management.

“Codes are meaningless unless explicitly embedded in the appropriate culture,” says Dufresne.  “Unless a student culture frowns upon dishonesty — not just tolerates it — a 10-word, memorable phrase will not make a difference.”

According to research by Dufresne, director of Saint Joseph's University's leadership, ethics, and organizational sustainability major, honesty needs to be an inherent part of the ethical system in place, and an inextricable part of student culture.

Dufresne's study was conducted at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and focused on competing tensions within ethical systems. "Students at West Point display an acute moral awareness and are socialized to approach ethical decisions in a unique manner," explains Dufresne. "These cadets have a specific understanding that the consequences of behaving unethically at school are tied directly to their lives post-graduation."

A “moral imagination” pushes students at West Point beyond a fear-based reaction to ethical dilemmas, which are a frequent topic of conversation in both the classrooms and the barracks at the Academy.  In actuality, this conversation is what seems to set West Point’s ethical and educational system apart from most institutions.

Structurally, Dufresne says the educational system at most institutions forces students to care about GPAS, making students more inclined to give into the temptation to behave unethically.

“Harvard is a beautiful study of performance oriented versus learning oriented systems,” Dufresne adds. “To care more about being a 4.0-Harvard graduate than to hold the idea that ‘I get the opportunity to learn with some of the greatest professors available,’ is almost a recipe for exactly what happened.”

Dufresne’s research has influenced his own practices in the classroom. He employs both tactical approaches, such as staggering desks and providing alternate exams for students, as well as strategic approaches, which emphasize a learning-oriented atmosphere over a performance-oriented environment, much like West Point.

"It’s easy to castigate students for cheating, seeing them as bad apples. It’s harder — and more effective — however, to recognize that the culture and the systems around them directly contribute to their ethics," says Dufresne. "Teachers, parents, coaches and friends all play a role in holding each other to higher standards. With a commitment to accountability, there can be success in shifting the culture. Of course, this lesson transcends higher education and applies to the business world as well.”

Media Contact

Carolyn Steigleman, Director of University Communications, Haub School of Business, 610-660-1355,


As Philadelphia's Jesuit, Catholic University, founded by the Society of Jesus in 1851, Saint Joseph's University provides a rigorous, student-centered education rooted in the liberal arts. SJU ranks as a top university in the Northeast, with a Phi Beta Kappa chapter in the College of Arts and Sciences and AACSB accreditation of the  Erivan K. Haub School of Business. The University is also deeply committed to the Jesuit tradition of scholarship and service, earning a place on the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll and the community engagement classification from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. With courses offered on campus and online, SJU prepares its more than 8,000 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students to lead lives of personal excellence, professional success and engaged citizenship.


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