May 2014

The Culture of Integrity

Living the Bryn Mawr Honor Code outside the Bryn Mawr bubble.

By Elizabeth Mosier ’84

3It’s a misnomer that Bryn Mawr is a bubble,” former Honor Board head Katherine Kellom ’09 told current students at a fall 2013 panel discussion hosted by the Alumnae Association, the Dean’s Office, SGA, and the Honor Board. “It is a safe space to talk about the same issues that come up outside.”

Although alumnae joke about indoctrination at “the Mothership,” some of the pressures and problems we find in the “alien” world outside are, in fact, familiar because we encountered them at Bryn Mawr. As we negotiate our lives after college, many of us call upon the Honor Code we internalized as students. More than a set of rules for avoiding ethical violations, the Honor Code “is a tool for starting dialogue,” said Kellom, a research coordinator for the Mixed Methods Research Lab at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. She views the exchange of values that aided compromise in college as essential to communication and collaboration at work. “I don’t think of it as the Honor Code anymore,” Kellom added. “I just think of it as being a responsible human being.”

2As students, we resolved to uphold the Honor Code to preserve and ensure the integrity of the College and of the individuals within it.* In return, the Honor Code inspired in us a lifelong commitment to creating a culture of integrity in the institutions and communities we would become a part of as alumnae. It’s a continuous process, and as many alumnae attest, it’s one that doesn’t necessarily become easier.

As venture capitalist and former Honor Board head Karen Kerr ’89 told the audience: “You don’t have one set of ethics in one location and another set of ethics in another. You need to live your values in all of those communities.”

Creating a Culture of Integrity

“I’ve thought about the Honor Code since college, in different environments

I’ve lived and worked in,” says Veena Siddharth ’84, a consultant for the United Nations World Food Programme, who has had a long career in international advocacy and human rights. “At Bryn Mawr, the responsibility was given to us when we arrived, but we had to make a cultural shift. We were the ones enforcing the Honor Code because it gave us freedom. I think it works because, in such a small setting, you really can change the culture.”

College culture affects individual behavior, according to Donald L. McCabe and Linda Klebe Trevino, who studied student cheating in institutions (including Bryn Mawr) with and without honor codes.  In “Academic Dishonesty: Honor Codes and Other Contextual Influences” (Journal of Higher Education, September/October 1993), the researchers reported that perception of peers’ behavior is the most influential contextual variable in dishonest academic behavior. As McCabe and Trevino concluded, “The most important question to ask … may be how an institution can create an environment where academic dishonesty is socially unacceptable; that is, where institutional expectations are clearly understood and where students perceive that their peers are adhering to these expectations.”5

At Bryn Mawr, this link between social and academic behavior is embedded in our system of self-governance, which emphasizes personal integrity as good citizenship. “The moment you arrive at Bryn Mawr, you’re expected to start being an adult, to take ownership of your life,” says Danielle Fidler ’93, an attorney at the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

“The culture of responsibility and honesty is both top-down and bottom-up. The College emphasizes teaching and downplays grades. Students know the focus is on learning, so competition is intense but internalized. So the institution and students reinforce a culture in which the benchmark isn’t where you are in relation to your peers; it’s how much you’ve actually learned.”

But Fidler’s experience in law school showed her that Bryn Mawr’s Honor Code doesn’t work as well in a place where competition is highly externalized. “With the exception of schools like Yale or Harvard,” she says, “law school graduates are routinely given jobs solely based on class ranking, so external incentives to cheat are already pretty high.”

1Fidler was uneasy when she uncovered a fellow student’s plagiarism while serving on one of her law school’s journals. “I didn’t know the student in question, which was too bad because I would have preferred to confront him directly,” she says now. She and her colleagues alerted the student editor, who gave the author a second chance. Then, when the article came back with the red-flagged sections revised but other plagiarized text untouched, the editor told the reviewing team they’d have to fix it themselves. She conjectures that the faculty advisor wanted the article published, perhaps to boost the school’s prestige.

“The law school didn’t have an honor code, so I wondered, am I supposed to go to the dean?” Fidler recalls. “My third year in law school was traumatic enough; there was a recession, and I was not at the top of my class. Being on a journal, which I’d fought hard to get, was one of the best things on my resume, and I didn’t want to do something that would cause me to lose it. Also, my own article had just been rejected by the same journal, and I didn’t want to look petty.”

One student quit the journal in protest; Fidler stayed but refused to revise the work. Instead, she put her energy into changing institutional culture by serving on the committee that created the law school’s new academic integrity policy. Although Fidler prefers Bryn Mawr’s model of confrontation and self-reporting, she compromised on a provision that requires students to report violations to the dean of students, but doesn’t charge them with breaking policy if they don’t. “I pushed hard for students to be involved,” she says, “and they are. If the dean finds that there’s a reasonable allegation, a hearing panel made of students and faculty members is called.”

Confrontation, Conversation, Compromise

Many alumnae say that the ability to engage in constructive confrontation is the Honor Code’s most useful takeaway in that direct communication calls us to work with, not against, each other. But in an increasingly connected world, the Honor Code’s emphasis on individual rights and development may not have the same power or meaning across cultures.

“As a boss [in a large international organization], the way I interpreted the Honor Code was to encourage someone who came to me with a complaint to get everything out in the open,” Siddharth recalls. “Now I recognize that openness as an American trait—something Bryn Mawr fostered in us because it values women’s education and aspirations. But some people are really uncomfortable with the kind of direct confrontation the Honor Code demands.”

After being undermined by a colleague for defending staff members who were being mistreated, Siddharth learned to be more politically savvy. “I still believe in direct confrontation,” she says. “But I realized there are situations where the system’s not structured for you to speak up, and you have to find another way. In my exit interview with HR, I said, ‘I’m an American citizen and have options and choices. I don’t need a visa, and I’m leaving for a job I really want. But there are people in this organization who are not able to do that, and they’re really vulnerable. This person should not be put in a position of power over them.’”4

Looking back, Siddharth says she has learned the act of confrontation has to be adapted to the work world, which is more fragmented than Bryn Mawr and its community bound by principles. “Some communities have the ear of power, and other communities don’t,” she says. “It’s important to keep to your principles, but temper your actions with an awareness of where you are.”

Focusing on Fairness

As undergraduates at a women’s college, we understandably embraced the Honor Code’s emphasis on self-advocacy. But alumnae who’ve risen to positions of authority talk about shifting the focus to being fair—to not using their power for personal gain at others’ expense.

“The biggest change I’ve experienced outside Bryn Mawr is that people don’t expect you to be ethical,” says forensic psychiatrist and author Vivian Chern Shnaidman ’84.

Shnaidman sees patients privately and faults the medical model of psychiatry for allowing, even encouraging, practices she views as unethical and wrong. Galvanized by a friend’s mother’s death, she is an outspoken advocate for face-to-face treatment that requires patients to be partners in their own care.  Her position puts her at odds with psychiatrists who don’t take insurance—and at a financial disadvantage because she gives her patients better treatment than insurance companies (which reward cursory appointments and copious prescriptions) allocate.

“Insurance providers regard treatment with psychiatry the same way they regard treatment for toenail fungus—as a medical problem,” Shnaidman explains. “You can treat the toenail fungus for however long it takes and get paid for doing that. But you might need to spend an hour a week or an hour a day with someone in order to treat a psychiatric problem successfully—not just 15 minutes every three months. There are a lot of things we don’t understand about psychiatry—the biology and neurology of it—but we know that if people engage in treatment and do what they’re supposed to do, they can get better. Medications can treat symptoms very well, but they can’t change a patient’s attitude. Of course I want to make a good living, and it would be nice to have all the perks that go with being popular, but my goal is to make my patients feel better.”

Often, ethical guidelines that are clear in an academic context are cloudier in our professional and personal relationships. “How much of a hand should you give your kid at school?” asks Susan Messina ’86, director of development at Iona Senior Services. That question is at the heart of her funny, fake science fair project, “How Much Turmoil Does the Science Project Cause Families?”, that went viral this winter. Messina says: “You don’t want your kid to go to school with a total piece of garbage. You try to stay out of it, but most grade school students can’t plan long-term enough to complete it without substantial parental prodding and help. Your kid’s work is on display, and therefore, in an unhealthy way, so are you.”

6Messina’s Facebook post, lamenting the crazy-making competition of the elementary school science fair, prompted an exchange as lively as any face-to-face conversation at Bryn Mawr. Of the many alumnae who weighed in, Angela Johnson ’87, director of teacher education at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, helped Messina to clarify her position. “Angela pointed out that even if you recast the science fair in a way that’s more fun, making kids do the project at home still privileges children whose parents have the educational background, time, energy, and money to assist,” Messina says. The online conversation guided her blog post on science fair reform, which was published on The Huffington Post.

“Should a parent do the work of a child?” she asks. “No. But if you take it to a different level, it’s more complicated. We have a responsibility to do the best we can with our children. It would be ridiculous for you and me not to teach our children to read because other children were not learning to read at all. The question is, what’s best for your child versus what’s best for the entire system?”

It’s a question Bryn Mawr alumnae continue to ask in their efforts to mindfully negotiate the tensions between self-interest and a commitment to the greater good. As Undergraduate Dean Judy Balthazar, who served as moderator of the alumnae panel, said, “What I love about self-governance and the Honor Code is that the process of trying to figure out how to make it work is an education unto itself.”

*The Bryn Mawr College Honor Code (as  of Spring Plenary, 2013)

The Honor Code in Context

Although the Honor Code is as foundational as our famous Collegiate Gothic architecture, it was first framed by students when Susan Walker (Class of 1893) circulated a letter soliciting ideas for a system of self-governance. “Now is the time,” she implored her classmates, “that we must choose once and for all between a more thoughtful self-government than we have had, and measures that must in time result in the establishment of rules, penalties, and monitors watching and reporting our actions to the powers outside.”

The responses, which informed Walker’s proposal to the formidable M. Carey Thomas, are uncannily prescient on problems that aren’t solved so much as shepherded by undergraduates today. We might picture our predecessors as tea-sipping scholars, but in the handwritten letters archived in Canaday’s Special Collections, they cite persistent problems with noise in Radnor as reason for concern that some of their classmates won’t follow dorm rules, report violations, or enforce standards uniformly across residence halls. “Can any form of self-government prevent the mischief done by the silly tongues of foolish girls?” asks Jane L. Brownell (Class of 1893). “And could the conduct of students in the classroom be regulated by the [existing] Undergraduate Association?”7

The Self-Government Association, chartered in 1892, is the oldest in the country and remains one of Bryn Mawr’s most distinctive and remarkable features. But it wasn’t until 1954, when SGA proposed a revision of the academic honor system to President Katharine McBride, that students formally claimed the privileges we hold most dear: unproctored, self-scheduled, and take-home exams. Whether they were Victorians bristling at fines for breaking residential rules or record-breaking numbers of early 1950s classes crowding dormitories and taxing facilities, Bryn Mawr students proposed these innovations during times of campus growth and change. For today’s increasingly diverse incoming classes, history points to the crucial role of shared governance in creating a cohesive community.

Honor Board heads Amani Chowdhury ’14 (2013–14) and Melanie Bahti ’16 (2014–15) make a mission of educating their fellow students year-round—in open meetings; events such as last fall’s alumnae panel; and through frequent emails on topics such as community values, general self-care, and rules for taking final exams. A newly appointed Bi-Co liaison represents the College at Haverford Honor Council trials involving Bryn Mawr students and serves as a resource for our procedures and policies. Honor Board keeps the community informed with reports and abstracts posted on the SGA blog (

8Translating the Honor Code for 21st-century students requires keeping to tradition while embracing change—a goal of acculturation highlighted by an increase in the number of students who come from other countries and speak many different languages. Betty Litsinger, who teaches English 126 and 127 (“Workshop for Multilingual Writers”) works with students in class, in conference, and in the Writing Center on academic tasks such as citation, which they’ve learned in different ways within diverse school systems.

“Sometimes we’re asking students to think very differently not only about the idea of intellectual property but about their roles as contributors to the history of ideas in a community of scholars,” she explains. “I try to introduce citation as another, useful way to do things, one that’s necessary in this community and the academic culture they are entering. To me, that’s the exciting thing about Bryn Mawr: It’s small enough that we can do right by each other and decide what we want our community to be. That’s part of what the Honor Code does.”9


Comments on “The Culture of Integrity”

  1. I came to Bryn Mawr in 1952 from a school with an honor code, mainly taught by example, and in my senior year sat in the hall during some exams in order to be available should someone get sick or need other help, and to write the time on the board (15 minutes more???) because not all classrooms had easy-to-see clocks. After a long academic career in which I sat, bored, while students wrote exams in classrooms, or patrolled during mass exams in gyms, my recollection of being allowed to sign out of an exam to visit the washroom or smoke produced a mental row of !!!!!!!!! at the trust we and the faculty had in each other, followed by a mental “Of course.” And it must be operating when I decide on investments, donations, or participation in the things I do in the academic and social world, but definitely automatic, subconscious, if very much there. Have any of us ever been convicted for, or charged with, or suspected of, fraud? Hard to imagine, hope the answer is the “None” I take for granted.

  2. Excellent! I wasn’t in a position to formulate my thoughts on this matter when my BMC ’84 classmate, Libby, sent out a call for contributions to us. The Honor Code and the community that thrives with maintaining and cultivating it are part of the essential, lasting elements I took away with me from BMC. It sets us up for conflict in “the real world”, but with practical tools and experience on how to recognize and deal with some of the many challenges encountered in different cultural and professional contexts.
    Thank you for this thought-provoking article. Reading it touched that visceral spot, both emotional and intellectual that makes me very proud to be a Mawrter!