Engraving Integrity on Your Heart

Last week marked three years since I ceased working at Agnes Scott College (ASC) in Decatur, Georgia.  Spending my final years as a college professor/administrator at this fine small liberal arts college for women was truly a blessing.  After 32+ years of college life, I finally left campus.  One of the most memorable things I remember about helping to educate these sharp, curious, and creative young women was the notion of honor and how integrity was interwoven into the mission and life of the college.

I was fortunate in that I sat on the committee who languished many months over what is now the college’s one sentence mission statement;  “Agnes Scott College educates women to think deeply, live honorably and engage in the intellectual and social challenges of their times.”  To live honorably is a remarkable aspiration for women, for anyone.  Imagine a college that creates not only female global leaders, but honorable ones.

I remember moving to Atlanta in 1999.  I had just married Warren who held a government position here.  I took a leave from my job at CU Boulder hoping that I might locate something intriguing to do.  I was worn out from the large research-intensive institutions I had inhabited for the first 20 years of my career.  Agnes Scott College was an unknown to me before relocating to the southeastern US.  Astonishingly, a job for Associate Dean of the College appeared in the Chronicle for Higher Education four months after I arrived.  I decided to investigate the College as I prepared my application.  I mentioned to Warren as I perused the ASC website that it was a college with an honor code.  Shocked I asked, “Are there still schools that actually promote honor as a value?”  I knew from my graduate years at Harvard that if a student was caught cheating, he or she was automatically required to take a year long leave.  But I didn’t know of a college that espoused honor as part of daily living.

The College’s self scheduled exam system serves as a primary example.  Over a ten day period students can select whichever class they want to take an exam in.  Maybe a student decides to take her French exam first and perhaps save the biochemistry final for the last day.  Or she could take all of her exams over a two day period.  The system is based on a strict code of honor; as a student you cannot discuss the contents of an exam.  Other aspects of the system include an honor court, activities and talks about honor and even some incentive for students to confront each other if found cheating.  The system doesn’t operate perfectly but it seems to support a culture of honor among the entire community including faculty and staff.

I still recall my first interview with the search committee.  We sat around a meeting room eating amazingly delicious food, unusual for a college I thought.  I could taste the love by long standing members of the kitchen staff imbued in the green beans, the rice cooked just right and the freshness of the greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and carrots in the salad.  As the initial inquiry began, a student member of the committee posed a question for me.  “We have an honor code at ASC.  What do you think about honor codes?”  Without a thought, I replied, “I think if you do not have integrity engraved on your heart, life is going to be a long haul.”  And I meant it.

I learned many lessons about honor and integrity over the years.  I will never forget that I cheated perhaps more than once on my high school chemistry exams.  I terribly wanted to have excellent grades so I could attend an outstanding college.   As I completed that class, I felt awful, ashamed and ignorant about the material.  When I took basic college biology, I felt the sting.  I couldn’t remember much about the periodic table, positive and negative ions, or other elementary chemistry.  I later learned how related mastery of chemistry is to biology and physics.  I never cheated again.

Once I became a professor, I would share a few words about cheating before every first exam.  I told the students I knew some of them would be tempted to cheat, however I would report them if I discovered it.  I explained was that cheating breeds incompetence.  If you cheat, you haven’t learned the material and I don’t want an incompetent surgeon operating on me, or an inept lawyer arguing my case or an unqualified teacher teaching my children.

In my first 20 years of teaching, I reported 2 maybe 3 obvious cases of cheating; two guys with verbatim wrong answers and in a class of 250 students, a student printed out her roommate’s paper and changed the first page.  I often wondered why students thought professors and teaching assistants didn’t carefully read papers and exams.  Now of course there are computer programs that can find all kinds of plagiarism with just one click.

I witnessed the most tragic case of cheating when I served as the associate dean at ASC.  A senior I’ll called “Joan,” already admitted to law school and about to graduate with honors plagiarized one of her final papers.  She was academically dismissed, did not graduate nor could she ever apply to law school again.  Joan provided a dreadful example of how costly one devastating error in judgment, a serious lapse in integrity can be.

I will never forget the very bright, inquisitive, and hardworking students I encountered at Agnes Scott College.  I have particular fondest for the ones I taught in the Senior Seminar in Psychology.  They were courageously creative, unafraid and unapologetic.  Once a student remarked in class that she didn’t believe in organ transplants—that if people were going to die, we shouldn’t be trying to extend their lives by taking organs from other people who were dying.  “No disrespect, Dr. Brown,” she commented “but that’s just the way I feel.”   Horrified by the comment, I applauded her honesty and appreciated her keen intellect.  I later became her mentor and strongest advocate, writing letters of recommendation for her for graduate school.  We still keep in touch.

As I reflect on my time at ASC I will always be grateful for the wonderful student assistants who combed the library for books, tracked down articles, and coded and analyzed data for me.  We shared laughter, family stories and I knew that my mentoring would bear a great harvest.  Even students I would describe as, “plucking my last nerve” with excuses for late papers or no papers, who didn’t attend class but expected to pass anyway still elicit a smile when I learn on Facebook or Linkedin that someone has acquired a promotion, married or recently had a child.  What impressed me most about the women of Agnes Scott College, however, was that by the time most graduated, they had engraved honor and integrity on their hearts.  Honor and integrity—what peace and joy these attributes bring.  Can you think of a time when honor and integrity brought peace and joy to your heart?