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A Century of Honor at Trinity


“I realize the responsibility involved in membership in the Trinity College community. I agree to abide by the rules and regulations of this community. I also affirm my intention to live according to the standards of honor, to which lying, stealing, and cheating are opposed. I will help others to maintain this responsibility in all matters essential to the common good of the community.” (The Trinity Honor Code)

“Is the Honor System still alive?”  Trinity alumnae and alumni ask me this question quite often as they check off their mental list of traditions they hope have remained strong even as Trinity has experienced many changes over the years.  I am happy to respond with a firm, “Yes!” to many of their questions, but with the greatest enthusiasm to the question about the Honor System.

In the year ahead, the 2012-2013 academic year, we will observe the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the Student Government at Trinity, and also the centennial of the Honor System.  This momentous anniversary is a great opportunity for the current generation of Trinity students, faculty and staff to reflect on the meaning of Honor in today’s culture — not only on campus, but in the popular culture as well.  I also invite our graduates to send in comments that I will publish on this blog concerning the ways in which your experience with the Honor Code affected your lives well after your Trinity days.  (Send comments by clicking the link below, or email me at and I’ll post the comments on a future blog…)

Our campus-wide commitment to the Honor System is a point of ceremony and celebration at our First Year Convocation every August when the new students recite the Honor Pledge and sign the Book of Honor. New students in our professional schools do the same during their orientations.  Faculty, staff and student leaders remind students routinely of the importance of living and acting truthfully and with integrity.

Over the years, with Trinity’s great expansion and more complicated issues arising largely because of technology, we have expanded upon the concepts in the foundational Honor Pledge through establishing the Academic Honesty Policy.  This policy statement sets forth very explicit expectations for honesty in all academic matters, and sets the framework for rules on plagiarism which is a particularly difficult problem in the Internet Age.

Trinity takes cheating and plagiarism as seriously today as we did when I was a student (oh, so long ago!) and well before that time.  The integrity of every grade and every diploma is at stake.  The honest, hard work of 99.9% of our students can be undermined by one person who cheats, thereby raising questions about the integrity of all grades and diplomas.

A grade in a course, a diploma at the end of the educational process, symbolizes the student’s own learning — a grade is a qualitative measure of how much a student has learned, and how well; a diploma signifies the totality of the student’s learning across the curriculum.  When somebody cheats, however, she does not learn the material; she only repeats what somebody else said.  Cheating and plagiarism rob the student of the intellectual development that is the real purpose of higher learning; a college degree is not about regurgitating facts, but developing increasingly sophisticated levels of analysis and expression along the way toward advanced intellectual capacity.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, schools, colleges and universities face increasingly serious pressures from a consumer mind-set (encouraged by many editorial writers and even members of Congress) that treats learning more like a consumer transaction than a difficult intellectual process that does not always yield the desired result.  In a consumer transaction, the buyer pays money and expects a product in return — a diploma, for example.  The process of learning is foreshortened and even eliminated in the transaction.  In real learning, however, while the student does pay for the time and talent (tuition) of the teacher, the result is not guaranteed — and, in fact, the hardest work has to be done by the student, herself, because learning is all about what happens to her mind in the educational process.  So, it’s not really a simple consumer transaction at all, but rather, a process that includes a good deal of risk for the student, but rewards in the value of learning that are well beyond the tuition price.

Recently, cheating scandals have erupted at Harvard University and the Stuyvesant School in New York, two bastions of students who are arguably among the smartest and most advantaged in the nation.  Why would such students cheat?  The stories that emerged from these incidents tell us that even the best students in the country under-value the learning process, look for short cuts that are dishonest, rob themselves of the opportunity to develop their intellects well because they have not learned the fundamental principle of honor and integrity.  They may graduate with gold-plated degrees, but what values do they carry with them?  (I wrote about this problem today in my blog on the Huffington Post entitled “The Culture of Deceit”).

At Trinity, our degrees are also gold-plated, and they carry the inherent value of our deep institutional commitment to Honor.  We have justifiable institutional pride in the genuine learning that tens of thousands of Trinity degrees have represented over the great span of years since our first graduating class in 1904.  A century of Honor at Trinity is our noblest tradition.

Follow me on Twitter @TrinityPrez

Keep up with my blog on the Huffington Post

What is your take on the Honor System?  Share your thoughts by clicking on the “comment” link….

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: