Princeton is not like other universities. Among the myriad of new and unique experiences the Class of 2020 will have is the surprising and impressive level of trust that the University places in the academic honesty of its students. The complete lack of a professor or preceptor in the room during our examinations contrasts sharply with the level of supervision we experienced in high school and that which our peers at other colleges experience.
The fact that this lack of supervision of examinations is, in fact, a requirement exemplifies the University’s commitment to trusting its students. Furthermore, professors’ use of take-home examinations and their trust that the essays and lab reports we submit are our own work sets us apart.
Yet this phenomenon of trust cannot exist without an understanding between students and the University that academic integrity is one of, if not the most, highly-valued principles in our community. We are not just trusted; we take pride in this trust. The University pays us the respect of scholars, and in turn we pay respect to the scholarly world by being honest in the work we do. We all accept this obligation and Princeton’s spirit of integrity before we even matriculate, by tacitly consenting in our commitment to Princeton and our understanding of this phenomenon grows over our time at the University.
There is one other obvious way we formalize our commitment to academic integrity, and that is signing the Honor Code. In making this commitment, we agree to both uphold the twofold expectations of the Honor Code and to answer to the consequences of not doing so: a year of suspension for violating the code and expulsion after two violations.
The Undergraduate Student Government has recently conducted a referendum on reforms to disciplinary action taken against those who violate the Honor Code. Technically, all that is proposed is to bolster the ranks of the USG by creating a task force to consider this topic. Yet the task force is to discuss, in a highly indirect choice of words, the proposition of considering altering the Honor Code to have “lesser [penalties]” for violations, specifically “finer gradation of punishment” such as “course failure,” and whether changes should be made to deal with mental health as a possible factor in violations. I will not open a debate on the mental health proposition, though I do find the notion of introducing lesser punishments for cheating to be contrary to our value of academic integrity.
The idea is to allow lower penalties for violating the Honor Code, be it cheating on an exam, plagiarizing in a paper or deciding not to report witnessing either act. However, this sends a message that cheating is a little more okay. Lowering penalties is lowering expectations. The University’s current policy is clear and communicative: we trust you, and if you break that trust, you will be greatly inconvenienced. Remove the “greatly” from that sentence, and the persuasiveness of that condition falters. Lowering the consequences of Code violations or creating smaller and lesser increments of punishment shows a misunderstanding of the environment in which we are working, one that rejects cheating and upholds the honor named in the Honor Code.
The issue with sending this subtle message is that we don’t believe cheating is okay, not even a little bit. There is no grey line between honesty and falsehood. You put your pen down, or you don’t. You cite the source of the idea, or you don’t. You keep your eyes on your own paper, or you don’t. Creating increments of punishment with lesser penalties convolutes our understanding of right and wrong and of academic integrity. It tells us that some cases of cheating are more acceptable than others, when there is no circumstance where cheating is acceptable at all. Our professors cannot publish papers with a little bit of intellectual theft or just a smidgen of unethical scholarly behavior. We hold ourselves to the same standard. The expectation is polar, and it is on the side of honesty.
It is also important to remember that for some students, the concept of “honor” alone is not enough to deter them from taking shortcuts. Yet the current Honor Code, for the most part, solves this problem by proposing clear and heavy consequences for infringements. This provides a cost-risk analysis for these students that clearly falls on the side of honesty, for though there may be a low chance of getting caught, a year off or even expulsion is simply not worth the risk. Decreasing the penalties for cheating tips this balance to the side of misconduct and may cause this risk to be taken more often.
Fortunately, most students find their honor and a belief in academic integrity to be reason enough to behave ethically. For this majority, this debate is almost irrelevant; if people have no intention of breaking of the Honor Code, they need not be concerned about the year off they would have to take if they did cheat.
Some may fear that they’ll accidentally break the Honor Code and that such heavy penalties are disproportionate to such a circumstance. In response to this objection, I note that we not only read and sign the Honor Code, but are required to accurately summarize it in our own words, and that these summaries are reviewed by the Honor Committee to ensure that we all actually do understand it. We then take a writing seminar that, among other things, explains citation requirements. We all know what the Honor Code is.
We do need to ensure that we have an Honor Committee that is effective and transparent in its determination of whether the Honor Code has been broken so that nobody suffers a penalty unjustly. The Honor Committee has a serious responsibility. We need to be careful in determining the verdict of a potential violation, but when it is found that integrity and honor have been disregarded, we do not need to slacken our tolerance of cheating.
Samuel Parsons is a freshman from Wangaratta, Australia. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.