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Honor System

The Honor System is one of Princeton's proudest academic traditions because it was established and has been maintained almost exclusively by undergraduates. Examinations at the College of New Jersey (as Princeton University was then known) in the late 19th-century were rife with cheating; students saw cheating as a way to outwit the faculty, while professors went to great lengths to uncover undergraduate cheating. Booth Tarkington '1893, as quoted in W. Joseph Dehner, Jr.'s 1970 paper, described this rivalry as a “continuous sly warfare between the professor and the student.” Crib sheets were common, as was sharing answers during examinations. Students who refused to collaborate were ridiculed. Reporting fellow students to the faculty was seen as dishonorable and out of the question for most students. Professors, on the other hand, would spend exams stalking the recitation rooms watching for any inconsistencies, and sometimes hired extra sets of eyes for the purpose of catching cheaters.

Student dissatisfaction with this culture of cheating and “sly warfare” reached a crescendo in 1893, when some of the most influential juniors and seniors proposed to substitute this system with one that placed undergraduate test-takers on their honor. Honor systems were not uncommon at southern schools, such as the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia, and many Princeton undergraduates had gone to southern preparatory schools with prominent and successful honor systems. Senior Charles Ottley '1893 and several juniors drew on their practical experience with the honor system at the Webb School in central Tennessee as they pushed for an honor system at Princeton.

The Daily Princetonian, in an editorial dated January 13, 1893, endorsed an honor system as proposed by Ottley and others. Undergraduates would pledge their honor that they would not cheat by writing and signing the following declaration at the bottom of their examination papers: I pledge my honor as a gentleman that, during this examination, I have neither given nor received aid [or assistance]. The faculty would take them at their word and refrain from proctoring examinations. Students would be expected to report any honor code violations they witnessed, and students, by rough consensus, would determine guilt and recommend punishment.

The faculty who, needless to say, were also dissatisfied with the cheating at Princeton, concluded that such undergraduate enthusiasm for honor and honesty should not be discouraged. At the next faculty meeting, Dean James Murray motioned that the faculty consent to the students' honor system plan. With Professor Woodrow Wilson's eloquent support, the motion passed. Dean Murray's senior English examinations in February 1893 were the first to be taken under the new system.

The Honor System was a decisive success. There were few violations, mostly concentrated in the freshmen class, and students were fair when determining guilt and recommending punishment. The faculty accepted the recommendations without reservation every time. In 1895 students approved an Honor System constitution, which established a standing committee to judge honor code violations. The committee consisted of the presidents of the four classes plus one junior and one senior selected by the other members. The default punishment was to be expulsion, and only two committee votes would be required for conviction. This was soon amended to five votes of six.

There have been few changes to the constitution since. In 1921 the student body unanimously changed the number of committee members to seven. They also agreed that in exceptional cases the committee could recommend a more lenient punishment. A post-war expansion of the Honor System to apply to all academic work instead of just in-class examinations (the “Spirit of the Honor System”) was set aside by the senior council in 1927 as too difficult to enforce fairly. In 1928 some students complained that they were not aware that they would have to abide by the honor code when they matriculated, and specifically, that they did not want to be responsible for turning in cheating classmates. The Honor Code Committee decided to send notice of the honor code to all incoming freshmen and require that they respond, signaling their willingness to abide by it. This practice continues to this day. A mass student assembly was held to explain the honor code every September until the mid 1990s. With the introduction of women undergraduates in 1970, gentleman was removed from the pledge to read I pledge my honor that I have not violated the Honor Code during this examination. The size of the committee was also expanded to twelve undergraduates, including alternates.

Students are now required to pledge on their honor that they have not cheated on other academic work in addition to in-class examinations, but violations of this pledge fall under the jurisdiction of the discipline committee (made up of faculty and administrators as well as students), not the Honor Code committee. The student-enforced Honor System is still a success over a century later: a recent Daily Princetonian poll reports just two percent of Princeton undergraduates have cheated on an in-class exam.

Related Sources

Board of Trustees Minutes and Records, 1746-Present. Entries on the following dates, at least, contain references to the creation of the Honor System: February 9, 1893; June 12, 1893; and June 10, 1895.

The Daily Princetonian (Student newspaper)

Historical Subject Files Collection, 1746-2005 folders on the Honor System. W. Joseph Dehner, Jr.'s paper can be located in these folders.

Leitch, Alexander. A Princeton Companion. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978). Also available online.

Office of the Dean of the Faculty Records, 1781-2005. Researchers should begin by consulting Series 1: Faculty Meetings and Minutes, 1781-2005. A reference to the creation of the Honor System can be found on January 18, 1893.

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Information on the current Honor System at Princeton University can be found online.

Information on the current Honor Committee at Princeton University can be found online.

Matthew Reeder (2003)

Last modified: Tuesday, 24-Apr-2012 14:06:14 EDT