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My Honor Court Chair Platform

April 15, 2009   I'm running for Hamilton's Honor Court Chair. Hamilton has a lot of student elections around this time of year (Student Assembly, Judicial Board, Honor Court, Chief of Staff, Grand Poobah, sub-Grand Poobah etc. etc.). It's pretty nerdy, but there's actually a good deal of interest and competition, which indicates a campus-wide sense of civic duty. That's kind of admirable, as admirable as snarky political jockeying at a college can be.

The Chair is actually voted in by sitting Honor Court members, so this platform is addressed to them. I may not win, but by God, I spent like five hours on this, and I'm going to at least squeeze a journal entry out of it:

Academic degrees are one of the pillars that hold up modern society. Some of the most critical power structures within America are in large part filled on the basis of what degrees people receive, and the amount of effort they put into getting those degrees. While this degree system is far from perfect, it is one of the best ways we have found to signal merit. The reason that cheating is immoral is that it damages the integrity of this signaling system. When people cheat, they hijack the system and manipulate it to display merit where none exists. If cheating becomes prolific, the integrity of the entire academic system becomes suspect, with resulting societal dysfunction. Honor Courts were created as a safeguard against the destabilizing effects of cheating. They are, in effect, the immune system of academia. Because the degrees that Hamilton College issues are among the most highly regarded in the nation, its Honor Court must function with absolute cohesion and wisdom. If elected Chair, I will do everything in my power to try to insure this.

I believe that my academic career has provided me with skills that would help me serve as Chair. I have served on Honor Courts for four years: two at my high school and two at Hamilton College. During my sophomore year at Hamilton, the acting Chair had to recuse herself, and I took on the duties of Chair during some very tumultuous and controversial cases. In terms of more general academic and community roles, I have been an RA for one year in South, and will serve as the RA in G-Road next year. I have worked with a medical team that rotated through the general medicine ward of a public hospital in Atlanta. And I have been a front page journalist for a year and have done my best to help Nancy Thompson’s Sexual Violence Coalition.

But the most important asset I could provide the Court with are the lessons I have learned after grinding through particularly brutal cases over the years. When I first joined a Court in high school, my view on cheating was black and white: there are people who follow the rules, and people who don’t. To me, the Honor Court’s job was search and destroy: find the rule-breakers, erase the damage they did to the academic system, and punish them so that they will never cheat again, even if it means expelling them outright. But when I joined the Court at Hamilton College, I began to realize that cheating is in some ways a crime of passion. Some people, for one reason or another, get pushed to their psychological limits at college. The stress of balancing sports, social life and school work, often without the support networks of family and old friends, causes otherwise good people to snap. At 4:00 am they suddenly decide it would be a good idea to copy and paste a paragraph from a summary website into their paper, with unfortunate results. Hearing case after case of distraught students trying to rationalize their actions taught me that we all could cheat in the right circumstances. While this does not excuse cheating, it made me realize that the Court’s job isn’t just to enforce rules, but also help the accused make a connection between their academic choices and the bad situation they find themselves in. In doing so, the Court not only protects Hamilton College’s academic integrity, but strengthens it by showing wayward students how to contribute to their community in an honest way.

It was valuable for me to learn empathy toward people who have cheated, but my time on the Court has also painfully reinforced the fact that cheating is, at the most fundamental level, a moral issue. A choice of wrong over right. The sad truth is that a few people, sorely pressed though they may be, believe they are entitled to trample on academic and social mores for the benefit of their own GPA. Although I have tried to maintain my sense of mercy for people in bad situations, I have never let it get in the way of the Court’s fundamental duty: to uphold the Honor Code, and to protect the academic integrity of Hamilton College.

Thank you for your consideration, and for your service.

Today's Shout-Out! goes to Geoff Hicks (2009) for being a great editor. You great editor you!