The majority of this article is drawn from the longer essay >A History of Davidson College Honor System” by Chris Knowles.

The roots of an honor bound community began with Davidson College’s conception in 1837. The Honor System at Davidson slowly made the transition from the hands of the faculty into the hands of the students.

Davidson College students learn about the Honor Code [1979]

Early Signs of an Honor Code

The necessity for disciplining students arose soon after Davidson College’s foundation. In November 1845, when the student body consisted of only sixty-eight students, the faculty suspended thirteen young men simultaneously. The 1845-46 catalogue documents a faculty member’s responsibility thus: “to watch over the morals of the students.” As the mid 1850’s approached, the faculty was spending an exorbitant amount of time hearing cases of discipline; some parents perceived that the college was losing control of the students, and such concerns resulted in a significant personnel change at Davidson.

The two literary societies at Davidson – the Philanthropic and Eumenean Societies – played a role, though informal at first, in enforcing a sort of “moral code” at Davidson. The students, not the faculty, implemented this code. Each society created a system which tried anyone who violated their particular moral code.

Mary Beaty writes, “A slowly developing sense of student honor can be detected in some of the society actions, a feeling of responsibility not only for oneself but for others, so that the corporate honor of the society might be safeguarded.”

Signing a Pledge

Some semblance of the modern Honor System at Davidson took shape before the Civil War. During this time, all new students signed a pledge to follow the college rules, most of which regarded social activity.

William Dickey, a young professor at Davidson, wrote these words about his students in 1860: “I put their conduct in the lecture room on their honor when I began and I do not believe they have in a single instance violated it.”

There was still no veneer of an Honor Court: a student was even denied the right to defend himself to the faculty. Professors continued to spend a significant amount of time making decisions about student conduct, with some verdicts requiring students to retake an exam or repeat an entire academic year.

More Student Responsibility

A movement towards student hegemony over disciplining other students began in the 1880’s. Though the exact disciplinary procedure is not documented clearly, President Shearer wrote in June 1892 that “the only cases requiring discipline were disposed of by the judicious action of fellow students, without the necessity of faculty action.”

For instance, the Eumenean Society expelled one of its members (from the college, not just their society) whom they had found guilty of plagiarism. Additionally, showing the increased trust given to students, the June 1897 edition of Davidson College Magazine describes an unproctored examination room, citing the vigilance of “an invisible Presence, the Honor of the Class.”

The student body gradually gained control of the Honor System and in 1909-10 formed a Student Council of fifteen elected representatives to whom all students were honor bound to report violations of “honor or other practices.”

The Modern Honor Code

With the drafting of an Honor Code, the Honor System was established in 1924 as we now recognize it. The Honor Code prohibited cheating, lying under oath, stealing, and failing to report the aforementioned violations; the Student Council held authority over most matters of discipline until 1958, when they founded the Honor Court (now known as the Honor Council).
This group distinguished itself from the Student Council in that it could focus more effectively on the education of other students about the Honor System and the investigation of violations of the Code. The Honor Court, unlike the Student Council which had broader responsibilities within the school, focused on educating the student body about the Honor System, investigating violations, and holding hearings for possible infringements of the Honor Code.

In October 1968 the trustees approved a new document, the Code of Responsibility, whose origin can be traced to a debate about the role of external regulations upon student behavior. Dr. Spencer, President of Davidson at the time, wrote that the document was founded on “a new philosophy emphasizing individual responsibility and a partnership between faculty, administration and students.” The Code of Responsibility stressed student accountability amidst freedom, and provided a foundation for the implementation of self-scheduled exams in 1970-1971.

The firmly established Honor System at Davidson provides an environment of trust inside and outside of the classroom. Prior to admission, every student agrees to abide by the Honor Code and Code of Responsibility. Thus, all students understand Davidson College’s expectation of individual responsibility, which results in a community of honesty and integrity. The Honor Council and Judicial Committee handle cases of Honor violations and take breaches of either Code very seriously. Both groups evaluate every case individually, and determine sanctions by considering the weight of the violation and its potential effects on both the Davidson Community and the accused individual.

Faculty and the Modern Honor Code

Professors are permitted their own interpretations of the Honor Code (for example, whether proofreading another student’s paper is permissible), but they are encouraged to explain their policies to students at the opening of the semester. Tensions do arise between the authority of the Honor Council and of the individual academic departments. For example, in the early part of the 20th century, the History Department website read “Plagiarism may result in a failing grade in a course regardless of any action by the honor council.” [Shelnutt] Still, there must be clear and convincing evidence for the Honor Council to convict a student who has not admitted guilt; even a professor’s professional opinion is often not sufficient evidence.


Above all, the Honor System exists in order to foster an environment where the College’s purpose can be best realized: “to assist students in developing humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds for lives of leadership and service.”

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The Honor Code – Works Cited

Riley, Carrie “Perspectives of the honor code at Davidson.” Davidsonian. 17 February 2000. Honor Code at Davidson Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Shelnutt, Blevin. “Professors Question Honor Code.” Davidsonian. 9 February 2005. Honor Code at Davidson Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Holt, Michael H. (Honor Council Chairman). Letter to all professors. 27 August 1986. Honor Code at Davidson Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Beaty, Mary. A History of Davidson College. North Carolina: Briarpatch P, 1988.

Armfield, Ed. The Honor System at Davidson. Pamphlet, 1967.

Author: Chris Knowles and Tammy Ivins [“Faculty and the Modern Honor Code”]
Date: 2005, January 2009

Cite as: Knowles, Chris “The Honor Code” and Tammy Ivins [“Faculty and the Modern Honor Code”]. Davidson College. 2005, 16 January 2009 <https://davidsonarchivesandspecialcollections.org/archives/encyclopedia/honor/>

Related Entries: Student Government

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