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What to Do About Student Cheating?

Steele Burrow, a Washington and Lee University senior from Dallas and president of the Executive Committee, wrote the following letter to the New York Times in response to an article about cheating in colleges. It is reprinted here by permission:

To the Editor:

“Studies Find More Students Cheating, With High Achievers No Exception” highlights a broad perception about academic misconduct — that it is difficult to trace and increasingly inconsequential. But when cheating, plagiarism and academic dishonesty are raised to the same plane as nonacademic issues of integrity, the results can be strikingly positive.

The honor system at Washington and Lee University is an example of one that works. Inside and outside the classroom, students are expected to maintain the same standards of honesty, and there is a single sanction for a student who violates the system: permanent dismissal. As a result of the system’s expectations and strength, students are granted, among others, a privilege that is increasingly rare — an understanding that professors and peers will always take them at their word.

As with any conduct system, it’s not perfect. Some who have not seen it may even call it naïve. But firsthand experience suggests otherwise. Our honor system is enforced — each year, students who violate it are dismissed — and when asked to describe our system in a single word, students and faculty alike often use “liberating.” Not liberated to cheat but liberated by trust.

When we see it in this context, students take academic integrity far more seriously, and everyone benefits.

Lexington, Va., Sept. 8, 2012

The writer is president of the student body at Washington and Lee University.