From the Desk of the Dean of Students
January 25, 2011
What is honor? What is integrity? Can it be taught or are our students fully formed by the time they show up at St. Olaf? How best can an institution nurture and support a basic sense of honesty?
These are questions that have been in play at St. Olaf since the founding of the college in 1874. And, as a recent St. Olaf Magazine story details at great length, one way that St. Olaf addresses these issues is by leaning on an honor system that has been in effect since 1911. By signing the St. Olaf Honor Code, students pledge that they will neither cheat during a test nor tolerate others' dishonesty. If a pledge remains unsigned or if there is other indication that there was an integrity issue on the exam, the issue is forwarded to the St. Olaf Honor Council, an elected all-student body that hears the case and renders a decision.
It's a system that has worked remarkably well for 100 years. Yet I think it's safe to say that the latter part of the century has been more challenging than the first part. Although new technologies have inspired new and creative ways to teach and learn, technology has also spawned creative and ingenious ways to cheat. For every counter-solution a college comes up with to combat dishonest work, there are new challenges right around the corner. Seemingly, it is an impossible game to win.
Perhaps the best answer, then, is to keep it simple and not think of it as a contest to be won or an opponent to be outwitted. Instead of investing in high-tech solutions such as video surveillance during exams or computer programs that employ complicated algorithms to ferret out copying, as a college we have chosen to revisit and recommit to an honor system that is rooted in our most basic of values.
We count on a strong community full of people who come to us with a well-ordered code of integrity that they learned at home, in a church, on a playing field, or in a workplace. We have chosen to call upon our better angels and regularly hold up and honor honor.
Understand that we aren't so naïve to believe that we are free of dishonesty, but I would argue that we are better off than those who are choosing the other route — the one of surveillance and combative technology — and we do not regret our commitment to old values.
When honor, or the pursuit of honor, becomes the norm, St. Olaf is a very different kind of place and it truly reinforces a sense of community that goes beyond papers and tests. In our most optimistic moments, on a fundamental level, it makes us feel stronger and safer.
In a way, it reminds me of a story about the late King Olav V, who walked freely around Norway without bodyguards or escorts. Amazed, an American visitor once asked if he was ever afraid.
"Why should I be afraid?" he asked. "I have 4.8 million souls to look after me."
That kind of peace is not easily won, but when we catch glimpses of it, we see how truly special it is.
Vice President and Dean of Students
St. Olaf College