The Honor System in action: idealism in alternate seats
Princeton University Archives
The futures market in morality

“I was thrown out of N.Y.U. my freshman year for cheating on my metaphysics final. You know, I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”

— Woody Allen as Alvy Singer, Annie Hall (1977)

When this column last explored the environs of the now 124-year-old Princeton Honor System, we had discovered via painful example the downside of not having such a clear and well-practiced set of policies, thoroughly understood by the entire institutional community. The case exhibited at the time happened to be at Harvard where, as it turned out, academic discipline regarding plagiarism and exam malfeasance was — to be generous — hazy, capricious, and totally without student involvement. The unremarkable conclusion (that this was not a good thing) didn’t set the metaphysical world on fire, but it certainly did highlight the relative effectiveness of Princeton’s approach, which still owes the surprising bulk of its operations and clout to a bunch of 19th-century students who, long before the model of an international research university really existed, decided that elementary fairness and decorum in examinations — examinations that were then predominant in grading consideration — were as positive a good for the examinees as for the examiners, possibly even more so. And ever since, the faculty has delegated this uniquely substantial portion of the academic process to the students.

Now, it turns out, a couple of key aspects of the Honor System that we didn’t discuss then (due to space and boredom constraints) need to be explicitly addressed and examined for a bit. The first, which to be fair has been grumbled about for decades at various levels, is the adjudication process practiced by the Honor Committee, in one sense the most powerful group of students on campus. The second, perhaps surprisingly given its clear history, is the punishment of those found guilty of exam honor infractions.

The initial concept of the system in 1893 was unambiguous almost to the point of naivete: If you were dishonorable enough to cheat on any exam and so disadvantage your peers and disdain your instructors, the other students wanted no part of you, ever. You were gone. The agreement of the administration to this punishment policy was tacit assent that 1) these standards were the desired norm for the institution as a whole, and 2) the students who applied them were to be trusted in meting out justice, which could be severe. Given that severity, the sentence has been a continuing discussion topic among students since day one; three of the first four students found guilty by the 1893 committee were pardoned on the condition they confess and take a zero grade for the test, but the one who resisted was withdrawn from Princeton by his father after the faculty made it clear he would be expelled. The aftermath of World War I brought an active re-examination of all sorts of behavioral norms (think Prohibition on one end and Jay Gatsby on the other), and so in 1921 the student body formally permitted the committee to recommend leniency in exceptional instances, the definitions of both being the province of the committee itself on a case-by-case basis.

It may astonish many alums to know that standard penalty for honor-code violations — expulsion — remained the norm until 1975. In concert with the rules of the Committee on Discipline, the joint faculty/student/administration board that administers all academic malfeasance cases other than in-class exams, a one-year suspension was only then formalized as a standard punishment for Honor System violations, and has subsequently become the default punishment. In fact, expulsion is generally now only considered for a second offense. Does this mean the student body now places less importance on academic integrity? Of course not, almost any Princetonian would have said in 1975. So, says the historian, why then change?

Meanwhile, the mechanisms by which violations are reported and adjudicated, which are necessarily far more complex than the sentencing guidelines, have seemingly been under continuous discussion since 1893. The number of committee members, the votes required for conviction, the taking of testimony, the presence or absence of representation for the defendant, the standards of conviction, the data resulting from convictions, even the precise responsibilities of the students who have signed the honor pledge; all have been under examination and flux at one point or another — or constantly — during the run of the Honor System over three centuries. A slight oversimplification of this evolutionary discussion of the system’s nuts and bolts is that the arguments on all sides continuously appeal to fairness, but the vision of the student body as to what behaviors actually constitute fairness is a moving target, and sometimes moving in multiple directions at once.

Take the reporting requirement as a case in point. The pledge we all signed for each exam says only that we have neither given nor received assistance, but the primary power of the system is that when offenses occur, anyone witnessing them is also honor-bound to report the details of the case immediately to the Honor Committee. In fact, not reporting a violation is technically a violation. Again in the restive 1920s, students objected to this as something of a bait-and-switch tactic toward incoming applicants — formal admission practices had only recently been put in place by the regrettable Radcliffe Heermance — and so in 1928 the committee took pre-emptive action and required every admitted freshman to write the committee before matriculation, agreeing to not cheat and to report anyone they observed doing so; failure to comply would negate the student’s acceptance. The faculty backed them up, and the new practice began, continuing to this day.  

Or take the right of the accused to representation. Long unspecified, the right of the subject of an investigation to have a personal witness present when initially called before the committee for questioning has evolved over time, then codified. Fascinatingly, the right to have an advocate in the formal hearing, long a standard operating procedure, was narrowed after some faculty excesses; now, only another student can act as a peer representative in the committee hearings, and not any member of the Honor Committee. A large number of such changes, up to expanding the committee and requiring students in an exam to record their seat numbers on their paper, have worked their way in. And, perhaps confusing things a bit, the Committee on Discipline now requires similar honesty pledges on some lab work and papers under its authority.

So why are we back here? Well, after little public discussion and less notice (three weeks), the USG last fall conducted a referendum (one way to alter the constitution of the Honor System) with four questions, all of which passed overwhelmingly and so are now poised to become operational rules. The current Honor Committee members, most of whom vigorously opposed the entire referendum, thus are still potentially in the position of immediately acting under those new regulations. Three of the four are nuanced, involving 1) two pieces of evidence being required for a hearing, which is arguably just a rewording of the current requirement, 2) allowing a course professor to dismiss a case by testifying that the alleged offense did not violate class instructions, which would almost certainly have applied in any case over the system’s history, and 3) requiring investigating members of the Honor Committee to immediately inform a student whether he/she is the subject of the investigation or a potential witness, which seems reasonable on the face of it but requires some detailed knowledge of the investigative process to evaluate.

READ MORE Honor-Code Conflict

Administration halts student-led changes, saying further faculty review is needed

And then there is the fourth, which changes the default punishment for an honors violation from a one-year suspension to disciplinary probation. This sets up an instant inconsistency with the parallel rules of the Committee on Discipline and implies, for example, that significant cheating on an exam may now be punished by probation while a lesser plagiarism violation will likely generate a year’s suspension. It didn’t take brilliance to imagine the faculty would be less than pleased about this situation, but the path to a solution under existing governance rules is murky at best and draconian at worst, and actually endangered the Honor Committee as a functioning entity. And sure enough, the faculty has instantly suspended the implementation of the two pieces of evidence rule, the faculty testimony dismissal rule, and of course the disciplinary probation punishment default, subject to detailed review and approval by the faculty at large. So they’re mad at the lack of consultation, the USG is mad at being undercut, and I’d assume the Honor Committee is apoplectic at being caught in the crossfire.

Meanwhile, the instant referendum addressed absolutely nothing about the most vulnerable part of the Honor System for many decades now — the often-documented unwillingness of a large number of students to readily abide by the reporting requirement and turn in cheaters, despite their signed pledge.

In the greatest irony of all, a joint student/faculty/administration task force had already been formed to examine the Honor System during the spring, including “investigation and hearing processes and policies, constitutional language, penalties, Honor Committee membership, and the Committee’s relationship to the USG.” Where this leaves the Honor Committee and the hundreds of students who voted in the referendum, whether they were well-informed or not, is discomforting to consider.

And so, as many times before, the import of the Honor System has been obscured by procedural effluvia, and it is incumbent upon us to reconsider what’s really going on here. Bill Bradley ’65 put it well at the freshman Honor Assembly (where did that go?) in 1976, when he surveyed the wreckage of the Nixon White House and noted the advantages provided by a system that “confronts us with ourselves at age 19.” And 33 years later, the great professor John Fleming *63 concurred: “Intellectual honesty is the absolute fundamental of the environment we need in a college or a university. Although the Honor Code is not the only way of achieving that, it dramatizes it, and it puts it right in the foreground. A Princeton student has to sign this thing. I think that’s a useful and important thing.” I hope the task force has them both on speed dial.