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President's Office | Remarks: Medal & Honor Ceremony, 2007

Trinity Medal and Honor Agreement Ceremony Remarks:  Class of 2011

October 16, 2007

Congratulations to the Gold Class of 2011!  Tonight you have taken one of the most important steps that will occur in your Trinity career.  You are about to sign one of the most important documents you will ever sign in your life — Trinity’s Honor Agreement.

I signed this agreement a long time ago, in 1970 when I first came to Trinity as a freshman.  For me, this document is more important than my mortgage agreement, my contract, and many other documents I have signed in my life.  How can I say this?  Because Honor is the basis for all of those other signatures, all of the promises I make to people whenever I sign a contract.  My signature on the Honor Agreement I made with Trinity a long time ago certifies my pledge to uphold the principle of Honor in all of my agreements throughout my life.  In essence, this agreement underwrites all of the countless contracts I have signed since that day; and so it will underwrite the contracts and agreements you make across your lifetimes as well.

By enrolling at Trinity, you have accepted the principles of the Honor System.  Tonight, you formalize your commitment to live by the principle of Honor, the hallmark of being a Trinity Woman (and Trinity Man) for life.  The Trinity Medal that you will receive this evening symbolizes this commitment to live by Trinity’s values of Honor, Justice, Faith and Charity.

Why do we take the Honor System so seriously here at Trinity?

Let’s talk about what happens when dishonesty prevails in our society.

Tonight, I’d like to talk about the very sad story of Marion Jones.  Do you know who Marion Jones is?  She is, quite simply, one of the top female athletes of our times — or was.  She won an unprecedented five Olympic medals in Sydney in the Year 2000; three golds among them.  But last week, she pled guilty to lying to prosecutors about whether she had taken steroids before that competition.  She also pled guilty to using performance-enhancing drugs.

Here’s this beautiful, strong young woman, her brilliant career flushed down the drain in an instant — all because she lied.

Well, you might say, if she had not taken the drugs she would not have won the gold medals.  Maybe yes, maybe no.  We’ll never know how good she could have been on her own merits.

Marion Jones cheated.  For an athlete to take steroids is like a student ripping a term paper from an Internet source.  It’s cheating against others, because every time you present something that’s not your own work as if it is, you have cheated the other students who are doing the work all by themselves.  Athletes who get help through drugs are just like students who plagiarize, they’re presenting work as if it were their own when, in fact, their work is boosted through an improper source.
What’s worse:  trying, but never winning the gold medal; or having the disgrace of having to give the medal back, and then going to jail  — all because of a lie.  There is never, ever any shame in trying your hardest to do your best, even if the result is a B on a paper or a silver medal rather than gold.  Your integrity is far more important than the grade or the color of the medal.  The Olympics quote this saying at the start of the games:  “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.” 1

By the way, I found that quotation in a column written by Fred Bowen, originally for the Washington Post, reprinted in places including thenewstribune.com where I found it online.  (See http://www.thenewstribune.com/soundlife/story/180241.html)  You can quote somebody who has quoted somebody so long as you cite to all of the sources.

Think about this:  being here at Trinity is like being at the Olympics.  Everyone here wins a medal for getting here — the Trinity Medal you will receive tonight, a medal that symbolizes your membership here.  You do not want to tarnish this medal, ever.  You do not, ever, want to give this medal back because you have done something to disgrace this medal, the honor, the justice it represents.

Yes, you want to win gold — you want to “ace” all of your papers, of course — you want to do well in your coursework and on your exams.  But you must try to do this on your own, not with any performance-enhancements other than those that we provide legitimately each day — the help of our faculty and staff, the tutors and advisors who are here for you.  Consider them your personal trainers, the people who will coach you to success.

But you must never, ever, give into the temptation to do something under-handed or dishonest, cheating to get ahead, or trying to get away with breaking the rules of this community, breaking your contract to live by the standards of Honor and Integrity.  Even if you do this and no one ever finds out, you will have tarnished your medal, you will have dishonored the entire point of being here at Trinity.

You will surely struggle at times here. If you don’t, we’re not being rigorous enough in our teaching.  Just like the Olympic saying quoted above, the important thing is not the good grade but the struggle to learn that preceded the grade.  Maybe you will triumph and get a good grade.  Maybe you will keep struggling and get a few miserable grades.  The point is not the grade, but the kind of person you are becoming as you wrestle with the whole point of becoming an honest, intellectual individual.  If you don’t find it hard to learn, you’re not getting your money’s worth out of this education.  Demand more; demand rigor; demand that we push you to struggle to learn.

In a perverse way, Marion Jones now stands out as a different kind of role model, a model for the consequences of dishonesty and cheating.  But at least she has confessed to what she did, and in that confession we can find some redemption, some restoration of her honor, some capacity to forgive — unlike some other athletes whose names I won’t mention, men who have reaped much greater wealth and fame than any woman will ever achieve, men who have not been honest with their fans, their friends, their families, their own consciences.

At least Marion Jones finally had the courage, the strength of character to admit what she did.  She said, after she pled guilty — again, I am quoting Marion Jones who was quoted by Fred Bowen in the Washington Post article that was reprinted in thenewstribune.com —  Jones said: “I want you to know that I have been dishonest, and you have the right to be angry with me. I have let (my family) down. I have let my country down. And I have let myself down. I recognize that by saying that I’m deeply sorry, it might not be enough … to address the pain and the hurt that I have caused you, therefore I want to ask for your forgiveness.” 2

Confession and forgiveness, are, by the way, also a big part of our Honor System.  We all make mistakes, and the Honor System expects you to admit your mistakes.  It’s far better to come forward to confess what you have done, rather than waiting to be caught in your lie.  We believe in forgiveness — not an exemption from consequences, mind you, since there must be consequences for cheating or dishonesty — but forgiveness means we can move on from the mistake, accepting the consequences but still coming back to try again.

Trinity’s historic system of honor is a way of life and also an educational program designed to teach you what it means to live honorably and with integrity in all things that you do, all the time, even when no one is looking, or when you think you’re just among friends.  Living honorably seems so obvious.  It means:

  • telling the truth, always, and never making up a lie in order to get out of the consequences of truth-telling;
  • keeping your promises to other people and to your community;
  • acting in ways that contribute meaningfully to the common good of the community, and avoiding actions that put your interests ahead of everybody else regardless of their needs;
  • treating all of the people you encounter each day — your classmates, roommates, hall mates, sister students, faculty and staff alike — with the courtesy and respect they are due as human beings and members of the community of honor and justice;
  • understanding that true justice is not about “getting mine, too” but rather, according respect and charity to other people because you owe that respect and charity to God for the gift of your life and privileges.

I want to bring this home tonight in two very direct ways.

First, the obvious part:  the Honor System here at Trinity definitely and vigorously rejects any form of cheating in your academic work.  If you cheat, you will experience very severe penalties.

What is cheating?  Certainly, you know some of the obvious forms of cheating — whispering answers to tests, talking in the restroom about the test, sneaking notes into the test room by writing on your arms, or with today’s technology, pretending to use your cell phone when you’re really getting answers with an electronic device.  I’m sure there are many more ways of cheating that I have not mentioned.  I don’t need to, because here is the message:  you are expected to be honest in all of your academic work, regardless of whether you are in an unproctored exam, an open book exam, a pop quiz, or any other methods in which your learning is being assessed.

To pretend that you’ve learned something that you have not learned is shameful.  It’s a complete mockery of our educational process here.  It’s also a colossal waste of the money you are paying to become educated women.

To pretend that you’ve learned something that you have not learned is cheating, plain and simple.

Don’t think we’re stupid, that we won’t find out.  We’re not stupid.  We will find out.  And, we will act.

There’s a special form of cheating called plagiarism.  Plagiarism means taking something that someone else has said or written and presenting it as if you invented the idea and the words.

It’s plagiarism to cut and paste material from an Internet site into your term papers or homework assignments without adequate citations.  If you are quoting a reference, the quotation should be clearly identified and given a citation.  But if an entire paper contains nothing but paragraphs strung together with some vague citations at the end, that’s plagiarism, too.

Your faculty members will give you instructions about plagiarism, and the Academic Honesty Handbook lays it out in detail.

Let’s turn to the other part of our Honor System here at Trinity, what’s sometimes called the “social” part, the part that expects you to live your lives with honesty and integrity in all that you do.

This expectation goes with you in all that you do, the places you live, both here on campus and elsewhere, the places you work and your activities in the community.  Integrity is not something you put on, like a new dress, for certain occasions.  Integrity is deeply ingrained in your soul and spirit.  And integrity must also flow through the community.

Trinity is a community of women and men dedicated to the principles of justice and honor.  We will not tolerate any conduct that demeans anyone in this community.  Nor will we indulge behaviors that manifest hateful forms of prejudice – racism, sexism, bias against others because of their language, accent, disability or level of academic attainment.

More than a century ago, a valiant group of religious women gathered with a handful of students on this ground to create a community that was new, at the dawn of the 20th century, a place where women could gather in peace and security to learn and to grow, a place that enshrined the virtue of honor as a fundamental organizing principle derived from their philosophy and their faith.

Those women, our Founders, the Sisters of Notre Dame, believed deeply that women educated in this place called Trinity would lead the world, would shape generations to come, would lead the way to a more just, more honorable, more peaceful society.  Today, the legacy of Trinity’s Founders sits in this great Chapel, the latest generation of Trinity Women to accept the leadership responsibility inherent in a Trinity education.

By accepting your Trinity medals tonight, by signing the Honor Book, you affirm your commitment to live by Trinity’s values of honor and integrity in all things, great and small.  On the large public stage, or in the silence of your own heart, you accept the obligation to speak and live by the Truth.

May you go forth from this Chapel tonight wearing your Trinity Medals as badges of honor, symbols of your commitment to use this education in service to others, in leadership to our world.  May you be exemplars of our highest values.  May the blessings of our Founders, those great Sisters of Notre Dame, go with you each day, giving you the strength to live honorably, the wisdom to make good choices, and the charity that will make your hearts large enough to embrace without reservation the people you will serve all the days of your lives.

_________________________________

1-Olympic message as quoted by Washington Post Columnist Fred Bowen in “Time to Forgive or Just Forget?” (Washington Post , October 12, 2007, p. C12), republished in The News Tribune as “Marion Jones’ Confession Leaves Fans with  choice,” October 16, 2007, republished at http://www.thenewstribune.com/soundlife/story/180241.html

2-Bowen, ibid.


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

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