"I really do think that the vast majority of people here are honorable.”
Maria Huerta ’11 has great faith in the Honor Code she is charged to uphold as a member of the University Honor Committee.
But a recent Daily Princetonian survey of 417 undergraduates suggests that many students fail to meet that standard. One of every five respondents admitted to violating a professor’s rules for take-home assignments, while 4.6 percent said they had cheated on at least one in-class exam.
This discrepancy between the number of students who said they cheated on in-class exams and the number who said they cheated on take-home assignments reflects the dramatic distinction at Princeton between these two types of academic work — a distinction which is highlighted by the jurisdictional divide between the University’s Honor Committee and its Committee on Discipline (COD). Several students and faculty members also explained that this discrepancy may indicate that the punishments handed down by these committees act as a greater deterrent than any inherent sense of honor.
Though several colleges around the country — including the University of Virginia, Yale, the College of William & Mary, Stanford and Georgetown — direct all academic infractions to a single disciplinary body, Princeton divides its cases between the Honor Committee and the COD. Cheating on an in-class exam is the only breach of conduct which falls under the jurisdiction of the Honor Committee, while the COD’s much broader mandate encompasses integrity violations related to all other forms of academic work such as papers, take-home exams and problem sets. While the 12 members of the Honor Committee are all students, the 14 members of the COD are a combination of students, faculty and administrators.
Debating the divide
The separation of responsibilities between these two committees has been the subject of much debate among individuals involved in the disciplinary process, especially in light of the fact that both bodies hear closely related types of academic integrity violations.
Huerta said she thinks there is a strong case for expanding the jurisdiction for the Honor Committee to include take-home exams. “All the fundamental concepts and values that are integral to the Honor Code still apply to take-home examinations.”
Honor Committee chair Parker Henritze ’09 noted that there has been an “ongoing dialogue” about this issue among committee members. “I think in a lot of ways it makes sense to me that we would cover all examinations, in-class or otherwise,” she added.
The ‘Prince’ poll found that the existing jurisdictional division between the Honor Committee and the COD is not well understood by the student body. More than half of the students surveyed said they were unfamiliar with the separate roles of the two committees.
Wilson School professor Stanley Katz, who has advised students tried by both the Honor Committee and the COD, said he was in favor of expanding the jurisdiction of the Honor Committee to all academic integrity offenses and leaving the COD to adjudicate behavioral offenses.
“I am inclined to stick to the proposition that one body ought to adjudicate all academic offenses, and I suppose that ought to be the Honor Committee,” he said in an e-mail.
But Associate Dean for Undergraduate Students Hilary Herbold GS ’97, who serves as COD secretary, said she thinks the separation of the two bodies “works extremely well,” adding that she would support maintaining the division as it currently stands.
The combination of faculty members and students on the COD “enables the Committee as a whole to consider the broad range of issues — intellectual, practical, and ‘real-world’ — that may come into play when an academic integrity violation is alleged,” she explained.
But the Honor Code “belongs to students,” she said. “They wrote it, they pledge to uphold it, and they administer it.”
Student members of both committees emphasized the importance of having students directly involved in enforcing these standards.
“I would say [students are] the most qualified [to serve on the COD],” COD member Vishal Chanani ’11 said. “Our purpose as the COD is to essentially uphold Princeton’s community standards, to hold people to those standards … I feel like students are that community. Students uniquely understand what students perceive to be the community standard.”
Fellow COD member Joel Alicea ’10 echoed Chanani’s sentiment. “I think it would … be odd to have only faculty members and administrators,” he said. “They are not the ones who are living out [the rules students have to obey] in everyday student life.”
But molecular biology professor Carlos Brody,who serves on the COD, said he believes faculty members also play an important role in the disciplinary process. “We’re here for longer than students, so we provide an institutional memory that goes back longer … this allows a greater knowledge of precedent,” he explained.
Henritze said the Honor Committee’s all-student membership is key to its role on campus.
“That’s the hallmark of the Honor Code,” she said. “It’s a code that was created by students in a pact with faculty … That it’s student-run is very much part and parcel with that ideology that’s at the core of the Honor Code.”
Calling the Honor Code the “last real vestige of student power,” English professor emeritus John Fleming GS ’63 noted that the code is “one of the very few substantive things about undergraduate life that students actually run.”
“Intellectual honesty is the absolute fundamental of the environment we need in a college or a university,” he said. “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.”
Alicea also emphasized the importance of upholding high standards of academic integrity on campus. “Plagiarism goes to the heart of what the academic community is about,” he said. “The idea is that your work is your own [and] you don’t take anyone else’s … if that collapses, academic communities do not exist.”
A dual responsibility
For decades, the Honor Code prohibited only giving or receiving unauthorized aid on an in-class exam. But in 1980, it was changed to require students to report any Honor Code violations they observe.
This requirement may be one of the more controversial elements of the University’s honor system, according to the results of the ‘Prince’ poll. Of the 85 students surveyed who said they had become aware of another student violating the Honor Code, only four — or 4.7 percent — said they reported the infraction. Of the 252 students who noted that they had never witnessed an honor code violation, 182 — or 72.2 percent — said they would make a report if the opportunity presented itself, while 70 — or 27.8 percent — said they would never contact the Honor Committee about a possible offense.
Henritze said that the provision of the code which requires students to report violations is “necessary and important” for maintaining integrity on campus.
“Part of the pact was that students will monitor students,” she said. “Everybody’s watching everybody, and at the same time, in doing so, everybody is supporting this ideal of the Honor Code and the spirit of academic integrity.”
Huerta also stressed the importance of reporting observed violations, though she noted that many students “feel uncomfortable with turning anyone else in.”
“It’s probably because they don’t really understand the reason behind why both responsibilities have to be interconnected,” Huerta explained. “One cannot work without the other. You cannot have an honor code with just one person saying they didn’t cheat because obviously no one is going to admit that they’re cheating.”
But Katz said he’s not sure the clause is effective. “It is my impression that students do not feel bound by the reporting half of the Honor Code,” he explained.
Students who are caught violating the University’s standards of academic integrity — either by their peers or by their professors — face serious penalties if they are convicted by the Honor Committee or the COD.
The standard punishment for students found guilty of violating the Honor Code is a year-long suspension, Henritze said, and according to its website, the Honor Committee finds between three and five students guilty of such violations each year.
The COD found 35 students guilty of academic integrity violations last year and voted to suspend or expel 22 of them. Eight others were placed on probation, two received dean’s warnings, and the University withheld the degrees of three second-semester seniors.
An effective deterrent?
The magnitude of these punishments may more effectively dissuade students from cheating than an inherent sense of commitment to the honor system, several of the students surveyed said, emphasizing that for them the central factor when deciding whether or not to cheat is the risk of getting caught. In particular, students indicated that they were more comfortable cheating on take-home work than on in-class exams because they were less likely to be caught and penalized when working alone.
But members of the Honor Committee and the COD said they did not think students choose to abide by the University’s standards of academic integrity solely for fear of incurring strict punishments.
“Although people don’t like the consequences … I think the idea of academic integrity is still respected at an institution like this,” Henritze said. “I’ve never had the sense that cheating is rampant here, and I attribute that very much to the tradition of the Honor Code and the entrenched academic integrity that Princeton has.”
Huerta said the Honor Committee’s goal is not to punish students but rather to uphold the University’s standards of integrity.
“The committee really is not interested in weeding out cheaters,” she explained. “We are not out to get you. We’re not just waiting for someone to report you.”
She added that she views the suspension sentences handed down by the Honor Committee as opportunities for “rehabilitation” rather than punishments.
“You’re given this time to step away from the University community and see it from the outside,” she explained. “I know it’s really hard to do that when you’re surrounded by people who know everything … and you feel so inferior and unintellectual.”
“I really do believe that the time off from Princeton helps the person redevelop and continue maturing,” she continued. “It really is a rehabilitation time.”
Though Honor Committee members recognize the importance of upholding integrity standards on campus, they do struggle with imposing sentences on their peers, Henritze said.
“It pales by comparison to how it must feel on the other side, but having to stand up and look someone in the eye and tell them that they’ve been found guilty and they’re gonna have to leave the University for a year … It’s 100 percent the hardest part of the process,” she said.
Brody echoed Henritze’s sentiment, explaining, “The most emotionally challenging thing [about serving on the COD] is seeing students who have made a mistake that they didn’t have to make … pay a heavy price for it.”
But it remains unclear whether the serious penalties for academic violations handed down the Honor Committee and the COD are working to effectively curb cheating on campus.
While nearly half of the students polled said they believed the Honor Code was “somewhat effective” and another 18.3 percent said they thought it was “very effective,” 20 percent confessed to violations of academic integrity, ranging from taking extra time on take-home work to using an iPhone to cheat on an in-class exam to consulting online sources or class notes for closed-book assignments.
“There will always be students who commit plagiarism, who commit some sort of academic violation…that lands them before the committee,” Alicea said.
Calling the Honor Code “hopelessly trivial,” Katz said he did not think it was an effective way to teach students about academic honesty. “My deepest feeling is that discipline ideally is part of the educational process in a University,” he explained. “The messages we send to the general student body are very important, and my fear is that the messages we are currently sending are obscure at best and confusing at worst.”
But Huerta took a more optimistic view of the Honor Code and the state of Princeton students’ sense of academic integrity.
“If you really think about … academic integrity, what it really means is that you’re devoted to whatever it is that you’re studying … and that you’re willing to research and formulate your own thoughts and ideas about it as opposed to plagiarizing or just doing the bare minimum to get through,” Huerta said. “If you can say, ‘I am going to Princeton to learn’ … then the least you can do is actually engage in scholarly research that’s your own, that’s unique.”
This is the last article in a five-part series on the Honor Committee and the Committee on Discipline. Please clickherefor the rest of the "University Justice" series.