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March 20, 2007

What’s in an Honor Code? Exams Face Changes

By Adam Gitlin

The Law School has a set of “Rules of Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures,” violation of which carries the risk of punishments ranging from censure to expulsion. Even so, the personal integrity of each individual law student remains the primary incentive to obey any of the Law School’s rules of conduct. Yet, as recent events have shown, the advent of widely available wireless internet access, as well as recent actions taken by the faculty and administration in response to what appear to be violations of the honor code, suggest that reliance on honor and good conscience may not suffice in all cases.

Until recently, when professors gave “unblocked” exams, the understanding was that students would be unable to access the Law School network during exams, and therefore would be unable to use the Internet during those times. But the IT Department has confirmed that lately other wireless internet signals are “bleeding” into the classrooms, a phenomenon difficult to monitor and impossible to control. The upshot, Associate Dean Kyle Logue explained, is that “it is not possible to have in-class unblocked exams without at least the possibility of at least some students having access to the Internet.” Therefore, the administration has decided that in the future, “unblocked” will mean that the exam-taker will have not only hard-drive access, but Internet access as well.

Dean Logue expects that once faculty are aware of this change, those who offer unblocked exams will have to rethink whether to trust students not to use the Internet during exams. “It probably means that fewer faculty will actually use the unblocked, in-class format.” Some faculty, it appears, are apprehensive about the adequacy of the honor code.
This is not to say that faculty were previously relying on Electronic Bluebook (EBB) as the only means of enforcement. But some faculty, knowing that students could have unfettered use of the Internet during unblocked exams if they are willing to disregard the honor code, “may decide that the temptation to access the Internet will be too great —or, even if no one actually accesses the Internet during exams, the likelihood that students will perceive that inappropriate Internet access is taking place is too great— to justify the risk,” Dean Logue said.

Is this lack of faith in the integrity of law students shared among our “peer” schools when it comes to wireless internet access during exams?

Duke Law School, which also uses EBB, hasn’t had any problems related to bleeding yet, so perhaps the question is not quite ripe there. At the University of Pennsylvania Law School, ExamSoft allows only word processing during exams —the equivalent of ‘blocked’ exams here at Michigan— so as not to discriminate against those writing by hand. “Because of the nature of the exam rooms,” says Associate Dean for Student Affairs Gary Clinton, “there is a strong self-policing effect.” Both schools ultimately rely on the honor code, however, since proctors are only in the room when exams begin and end.

Still other schools appear to rely wholly on student integrity. The University of Virginia Law School, for example, does not block Internet access during exams at all, and directions on every exam explain that Internet use is forbidden unless specifically authorized by the professor.

Stanford Law does not even use exam software —students who use laptops can choose Word or WordPerfect, Mac or PC. Students are permitted to access neither the Internet, nor their hard drives, such that any sources they use must be in hard copy. Stanford does turn off wireless during exams, but it too has seen an increase in bleeding. However, as Catherine Glaze, Associate Dean for Student Affairs, succinctly put it, “We don’t use exam software and rely on the honor code to deal with that.”

When compared to these examples, Dean Logue’s prediction that most professors will choose to block exams, assuming the ‘temptation’ to ‘cheat’ will be too great to resist, seems to imply that the faculty and administration do not trust or expect law students to be honorable for honor’s sake, at least not as wholeheartedly as other law schools do.

One recent event lends credence to those doubting the faculty and administration’s confidence in students’ integrity. Professor Reuven Avi-Yonah’s Transnational Law exam last fall had an essay question about Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, a case too recent to be included in the coursepack, but available via the course’s TWEN site. Its posting was advertised only in class, but Professor Avi-Yonah covered the case at length. On the exam, this was the perfect chance for those who had attended class regularly to distinguish themselves from those who had not.

During the exam, the administration acknowledges, a significant number of students did violate the rules by accessing the Internet —some to find the full Hamdan case, some to find synopses, others still to find short analyses, like those available in online encyclopedias. Pursuant to the Rules of Conduct, several students brought the matter to Dean Baum’s attention. He discussed the matter with Dean Logue and Professor Avi-Yonah, and Professor Avi-Yonah decided, pursuant to that consultation, to exclude the Hamdan question entirely from his grading of exams, basing students’ grades on the two other sections of the exam. This information was not broadcast to the entire class, but discussed only with those students who followed up on the issue to find out how it had been resolved.

Ostensibly, this solution mitigated the potential unfairness created when some students sought information from the Internet in response to the exam question. But what of those who had come to class and had no need to cheat? Some students who knew of the case and Professor Avi-Yonah’s views on it understandably worked harder on that question than on others, believing they had a competitive advantage in answering it, and one that would go a long way, given that a third of the weight of points in the exam depended on one’s answer to that question.

The administration’s approach to the problem raises a few questions. First: Why this of all solutions? As a matter of basic criminal law, it accomplishes neither retribution nor deterrence. Cheaters are rewarded by having relatively more weight put on the parts of the test for which they were prepared, and non-cheaters are punished by exclusion of the question that would have allowed them to stand out. And the message sent to the student body is that if enough people violate the rules, knowingly or unknowingly, the administration will elect to do nothing.

But more disturbingly, why didn’t the administration even attempt to ask those who used the Internet to step forward? Most likely, not all students intended to break the rules, and had either forgotten them, or assumed that, because they found themselves technically able to access the Internet, Professor Avi-Yonah had specifically requested that they be permitted to do so. Asking students to step forward would have allowed these people to explain themselves, with presumably reduced punishment. Do the administration and faculty have such little faith in us that they not only expect us to break the rules, but further expect that once asked to own up to having broken them, we won’t? Such a lack of faith can be, as any parent can attest, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Does our Law School trust its students less than other schools trust theirs? Unlike all the other schools contacted for this article, our proctors are present for every minute of an exam. True, this offers a luxury, in that when we find an error on an exam, we can report it to a proctor, who can set the wheels in motion to procure additional instructions from the professor. But insofar as the proctors are there to prevent cheating, it seems that the administration sees them as necessary, but not sufficient. As Dean Logue explained, “[T]he presence of proctors might not be enough for some faculty members.”

Maybe trust from the enforcer requires a credible threat of actual enforcement. Of course, if more professors block exams in the future for fear of cheating, and violations of rules on unblocked exams continue to generate responses in the fashion described above, we’ll never know. Wireless bleeding offers an opportunity to reflect on what the honor code means here; let’s hope the faculty and administration consider carefully the messages their actions, conspicuous or covert, convey to the students and the Law School community.