The honor code is an aspect of the experience at Dartmouth that, at least in part, exists abstractly. The broad principles of the honor code, which center around academic honesty and integrity, rarely assume a discretely tangible form. Apart from blatant cases such as cheating on an exam or plagiarizing an essay, it is sometimes difficult to draw a clear line between what is acceptable under the honor code and what is not. Subjective judgments are often required to make determinations in more nuanced situations, the outcomes of which may have far-reaching implications. So, while it is an admirable and important part of Dartmouth life, the honor code is a tricky concept to corral. What, exactly, does "honor" entail and how can we best defend it?
The Dartmouth community was recently confronted with such a situation when the International Business Council invited Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg to campus ("Guttenberg cancels IBC talk after facing scrutiny," Jan. 22). Guttenberg, who holds the rank of Freiherr (analogous to Baron) in the German peerage system, is a former defense and economics minister in Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet. Once the golden boy of German politics, Guttenberg's popularity in his native land was tremendous. Young, handsome and articulate, he was a Bavarian conservative who had, apart from presiding over an economy that hummed right through the global financial crisis, introduced sweeping reforms of the Bundeswehr (the German armed forces.) However, Guttenberg's rising stardom came crashing down when in 2011 it was revealed that his doctoral thesis had been heavily plagiarized. Publicly shamed, Guttenberg resigned his political positions and took up residence, along with his estimated 800 million Euro ($1.1 billion) fortune, in the United States.
The IBC's invitation of Guttenberg to Dartmouth was not extended with the intent of having the man comment on how to write a dissertation. As a former high-ranking official in the government of Europe's most important state, Guttenberg is certainly qualified to speak about international political issues, which was the advertised topic of the talk. (Conveniently, though, advertisements of the event neglected to mention Guttenberg's plagiarism scandal in the provided biography.) However, his presence on a campus united by an honor code nonetheless brought up an obvious conflict of interest. By allowing a plagiarist to have a platform from which to speak, regardless of the topic, was Dartmouth betraying its own values of academic honesty and integrity? Dozens of faculty members and students thought so and signed a petition, organized by German studies professor Veronika Fuechtner, to protest Guttenberg's impending visit. As the petition exceeded 100 signatures, Guttenberg, perhaps feeling some amount of pressure, canceled his own appearance "for personal reasons."
While free speech is rightly revered as a tenet of both the American democratic fabric and the academic community, Dartmouth is under no legal or moral obligation to allow any person an opportunity to be featured in a public forum on its campus. When the person in question has been disgraced as a plagiarist, providing such a forum would reflect poorly upon Dartmouth's commitment to and reputation for upholding its values of academic integrity. If Guttenberg had taken full personal accountability for his transgressions, then perhaps his appearance could be construed as the granting of a second chance to a man seeking redemption. However, Guttenberg has done no such thing rather, he has provided a series of excuses and pseudo-justifications for his intellectual fraud. Such a lack of repentance, or even an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, is a slap in the face to any professional academic or student who has pursued scholarship with honesty and integrity.
Actions reflect values. Just as Guttenberg's plagiarism and subsequent eschewing of responsibility are indicative of a poor sense of personal and academic honor, the Dartmouth community's response to the ex-minister's scheduled talk demonstrates a sincere and vested interest in upholding the principles of academic integrity. While the issue of Guttenberg's dishonesty did not require a nuanced interpretation of any honor code, the stand taken by faculty and students against his visit is nonetheless admirable. In order for the concept of integrity to have any meaning, it must be defended when faced with a challenge. Fortunately, Dartmouth did just that when given the opportunity to reaffirm its own values.