On the Campus: December 25, 1996

Poll results show need for recommitment to standards


Shortly before Woodrow Wilson ascended to Princeton's presidency, rampant cheating led two enterprising students from Tennessee to suggest a new code of honor. Adopted less than a year later, that code (with minor adjustments) has since survived a century and influenced colleges across the country.
A national college magazine recently published a poll in which 59 percent of students admitted to having cheated sometime during their college career. By contrast, only 2 percent of Princetonians reported having cheated on an in-class exam in a recent poll taken by The Daily Princetonian. Cheating has clearly diminished since the Honor Code was instituted.
But in the same poll, a surprising 60.5 percent said they would not turn in a close friend who cheated. As everyone who has been through freshman-orientation week at Princeton knows, the essential elements of the code are the promise not to cheat and to report anyone who does. Conscientious students once dedicated themselves to a system founded on trust between students. Today, the refusal of many to honor the major premises of the code suggests it is time to reconsider its structure and value.
A committee of 12 students (including alternates) administer the code, investigate cases, and try suspected offenders. After initial investigation, about half of reported suspicions are brought to trial. Of those cases brought to trial, less than half end in conviction. Punishments include one- to three-year suspensions and expulsion for repeat offenders. To ensure that no innocent student is ever tainted by a wrongful conviction, the honor committee's standard of proof is high: without reasonable evidence, cases fail to reach the trial stage. And the committee struggles for near-certainty before finding any student guilty. Over the last five years, five students have been suspended in 10 cases resulting from 20 reports of cheating.
Once convicted, a student can appeal only on the basis of "procedural unfairness or harmful bias." Last year a convicted student appealed and was cleared in his second trial with the assistance of an administrator serving as defense advocate. Because of concerns in that trial about the treatment of witnesses, the honor committee recently amended the constitution of the code to require that advocates be drawn only from the student body. The committee also moved to shorten the interval between appeal and retrial.
Most students have no idea how the code operates, what kinds of cases the committee hears, or how such cases are decided. The Honor Code constitution is published in the Rights, Rules and Responsibilities manual handed out at the start of every year, and an entire evening of freshman week is devoted to the Honor Code. But the manual is rarely read, and freshman-week lectures tend to go in one ear and out the other. As a result, many students know little about how the code works, even if they are aware of the basic responsibility not to cheat. Names of accusers and accused must, of course, be confidential, but general information about current cases and about the process used to decide them should be publicized. When students do not fully understand how the code works, they are less likely to commit to its ideals. If the Honor Committee publicized its process, students would better appreciate the fairness with which the code operates.
In a university dominated by administrators, trustees, and faculty, the Honor Code is one of the last relics of student power. No administrators or faculty members are involved in the process, unless consulted by the honor committee. According to one committee member, some faculty members are uncomfortable that students administer the code. Few universities allow students such jurisdiction, they say. But Princeton should be proud to invest trust in students: Isn't this an institution that prides itself on a commitment to undergraduates?
As our official representative body, the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) occasionally works on quality-of -life issues (like free laundry, as well as soap and paper towels for upperclass dorms). But USG operations are usually limited to short-term student concerns. The existence of the Honor Code and honor committee gives students the right to govern themselves on issues of academic integrity. We have the right to elect our own representatives, who then have the right to punish or pardon accused fellow students. While the curriculum, calendar, and cost of our education is out of our control, the Honor Code is not.
The recent poll raised doubts about the code's relevancy. Justin Mulaire '98 recently proposed to the USG that students be required to re-ratify the Honor Code constitution every four years. A similar proposal was nearly approved in 1994. This proposal seeks to inspire each generation of students to dedicate itself to the code. Although this process would create a risk for the future of the code, there is little danger of it failing re-ratification in the foreseeable future. Most students (even those who wouldn't turn in cheating friends) support the idea of an Honor Code. A periodic reaffirmation would be well worth our while. The power and privilege that is trusted to our honor should not be taken lightly.

Jeremy Caplan, a senior from Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, is a Woodrow Wilson School major.