An honor code or honor system is a set of rules or principles governing a community based on a set of rules or ideals that define what constitutes honorable behavior within that community. The use of an honor code depends on the idea that people (at least within the community) can be trusted to act honorably. Those who are in violation of the honor code can be subject to various sanctions, including expulsion from the institution. Honor codes are most commonly used in the United States to deter academic dishonesty.
In America, the first student-policed honor system was instituted in 1779 at The College of William & Mary at the behest of Virginia's then-Governor Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had graduated from William & Mary in 1762 and inked a basic honor system for his college.
Jefferson later envisioned a similar honor system for his University of Virginia; it was at first based on strict laws limiting student behavior, but later based on student self-government. However, he never lived to see it in practice there. UVA's early years were marked by contentious relations between students and the faculty, which culminated on November 12, 1840, when John Davis, a professor, was shot to death in an attempt to quell a disturbance on The Lawn. Davis refused to identify his assailant, stating that an honorable man would step forward on his own. On July 4, 1842, William & Mary alumnus Henry St. George Tucker, who had replaced Davis on the faculty, proposed that in the future, students sign examinations in the form "I, A.B., do hereby certify on my honor that I have derived no assistance during the time of this examination from any source whatsoever. The idea succeeded with the students. The wording of the honor pledge has changed over time, and the definition of what constitutes an honor offense has evolved as well, at times including matters such as smoking, cheating at card games or insulting ladies. As of 2006, an honor offense is defined as an act of lying, cheating, or stealing, performed intentionally, of sufficient gravity such that open toleration of the act would impair the community of trust sufficiently enough to warrant expulsion of the offender. Despite the evolution of the system over the years, UVA's Honor System is rare in that it is administered entirely by the University's students. Princeton has also maintained an entirely student-run Honor Code since the beginning of their Code in 1893.
However, Jefferson's vision of a student self-governed system remains largely unrealized at other universities. Most schools adopting honor codes limit their application to the academic realm. More comprehensive systems -- not unlike Haverford's and Davidson's-- where students ratify and enforce social and academic codes, are rare.
Today, some of the most notable and most stringent honor codes exist at the U.S. federal military academies--the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Military Academy (see Cadet Honor Code), and the U.S. Air Force Academy. The military academy honor codes not only govern the cadets' and mid-shipmen's lives at the academies, but are deemed essential to the development of military officers who are worthy of the public trust. As such, the codes are not limited merely to academic situations or to conduct on campus; cadets and midshipmen are expected to live by the codes' ethical standards at all times. Furthermore, they may not tolerate violations by other cadets or midshipmen--toleration itself being a violation of the code. Under the academies' honor codes, violation of the code is generally dealt with by dis-enrollment of the offender.
Another school with a very strict honor code is Brigham Young University. The university not only mandates honest behavior, but incorporates various aspects of virtuous living: drinking, smoking, drug use, and premarital sex are all banned. Also, the code includes standards for dress and grooming. Men must be clean shaven and men and women cannot wear short shorts or other revealing clothing.
Enforcement of honor codes differs from campus to campus as well. UVA opts for a student-run honor code which involves student input and is generally limited to academic concerns. Haverford College holds an honor code which is ratified (or not) by students yearly and run by an elected body, Honor Council. This code is concerned with an academic as well as a social component, demanding equal respect among students, in contrast to the military academies' focus on hierarchy. Davidson College also holds a dual honor code. An urban legend surrounds the Davidson code stating that a student was put on trial for not reporting an extra can of soda dispensed by a vending machine. Princeton University has maintained a student-run Honor Code for over one hundred years, unique in that regard among Ivy League schools. Vanderbilt University has also been governed by an Honor Code since its founding. Freshmen students attend an honor code ceremony to protect the traditions and academic integrity of the university. A plaque of the honor code is engraved in the student life center with a quote by once-Chancellor Madison Sarratt, "Today I give you two examinations, one in trigonometry and one in honesty. I hope you pass them both, but if you must fail one, let it be trigonometry for there are many good men in this world today who cannot pass an examination in trigonometry, but there are no good men in the world who cannot pass an examination in honesty." The University of Texas School of Law sets its Honor Code as a first step in the obligation of its students to the legal profession: "All law students are harmed by unethical behavior by any student. A student who deals dishonestly with fellow law students may be dishonest in the future and harm both future clients and the legal profession. In keeping with this approach the honor code in the grand scheme of the legal profession, honor code violations are reported to the State Bar of Texas and the violator's home state bar, thus creating an impediment to licensure. Texas Law is unique in that regard.