Four binding referenda on the ballot this week aim to fundamentally reform the University’s 124-year-old Honor Code.
The referenda include a reduction to the standard Honor Code violation penalty from a one-year suspension to disciplinary probation, a requirement that two pieces of evidence are presented to bring a case to a hearing, an assurance that cases will be dismissed if professors testify that a student’s action did not violate the course policy, and a new policy that Honor Committee investigators must disclose a student’s status as either witness or accused at first contact.
Chair of the Undergraduate Student Government Academics Committee Patrick Flanigan ’18 spearheaded a subcommittee this fall that submitted the referenda to the elections manager after weeks of deliberation. Flanigan cited the experiences of members of his subcommittee, which includes USG members as well as both former and current Honor Committee members, in shaping the contents of the referenda.
A task force charged by the University will also review the Honor System in the spring semester with the input of faculty, students, and administrators. Flanigan will participate in the task force.
Flanigan argued that the first referendum would help to provide protections for low-income students who would not be able to afford to take a year of school off if convicted of an Honor Code violation.
“As a student on full financial aid myself, I could not afford to take a gap year in Europe. I’d have to work to support myself,” explained Flanigan. “The realities are different.”
Flanigan also explained that the subcommittee found the penalty to be too excessive for a first offense that may not be premeditated. Disciplinary probation, according to Flanigan, is a harsh enough penalty in and of itself.
“This is not the kind of penalty that we felt—and we’re asking the students if they agree—that this kind of offense merits,” Flanigan said.
Flanigan also explained that the subcommittee found the traditional Honor Code penalty of a one-year suspension to be too excessive for a first offense that may not be premeditated. Disciplinary probation, according to Flanigan, is a harsh enough penalty in and of itself.
Chair of the Honor Committee Carolyn Liziewski ’18 argued that such a referendum would be a lower penalty across the board, more similar to “standard leniency” rather than “standard penalty.”
“The student who writes 45 seconds overtime will be penalized the same exact way that the student who uses Google will be penalized,” said Liziewski, referring to a 2013 referendum that gave overtime cases a standard penalty of disciplinary probation.
The second referendum has also drawn intense opposition from opponents to the reform. According to Flanigan, the referendum is meant to prevent the possibility of only one piece of evidence being the deciding factor in bringing a case to a hearing.
“For me, this would prevent a case from going to hearing where there was one anonymous piece of testimony against a student, no matter how certain they were,” Flanigan said.
Liziewski specifically noted that opposition to this referendum is based more on its language than its substantive content.
The referendum reads that two pieces of evidence are needed to bring a case to a hearing, “each of which indicates that a violation occurred.” The wording, Liziewski argued, suggests that the evidence would be, in effect, doing the work of a hearing — finding that a violation of the Honor Code has been committed.
“The fear is that this does open the door for an appeal because a student can say, ‘Of course, the Chair voted to find me responsible. A week before she ever voted, she told me she thought I was responsible,’” Liziewski said.
The third referendum allows a professor’s testimony to dismiss a case against a student if a professor claims that the student’s actions did not violate the course policy. The referendum was made to account for variations in different professors’ course policies.
Diego Negrón-Reichard ’18 noted that while tabling at Frist Campus Center in support of the Honor Code referenda, he spoke with a professor who expressed support for the referenda. That professor had twice before attempted to intervene on behalf of a student under Honor Committee investigation, but was ultimately unable to influence the Committee's ruling in both cases.
“For these cases, we believe that the Committee is not giving enough weight to these professors’ testimonies,” Flanigan said.
Liziewski emphasized that the Honor Committee is mostly focused on whether or not the students receive unfair advantage during an examination.
“In our minds, we’re thinking, ‘Well, did the student get to do something that everyone else in the classroom didn’t get to do?’ That’s what the Honor Code is all about, which is leveling the playing field,” Liziewski said.
The fourth referendum forces the Honor Committee to notify a student of their status as either a witness or accused person upon initial contact. Currently, the Honor Committee does not notify a student of their status until their meeting, which, according to research done by Flanigan’s subcommittee, places a mental burden on students who are asked to come in.
“[From] being called up there — that experience in and of it itself — Committee members said they would frequently have people [who were just witnesses] in tears or on the verge of tears,” Flanigan said.
Liziewski noted that the Honor Committee previously did not notify students of their status until after their initial questioning. She also argued that, though arguments on both sides of the referendum are valid, the impact of being notified of a person’s status could outweigh the anxiety of waiting.
During a USG meeting on Dec. 3, Liziewski repeatedly emphasized the need for faculty engagement in the discussion of changes to the Honor Code, which she believes has not occurred with this referenda. The opposition has also argued that a longer timeframe is necessary to discuss potential changes to the Honor Code.
“I think because the Code is conceived as a contract between the students and the faculty, it really is necessary for us to engage the faculty in these discussions,” Liziewski said.
Negrón-Reichard explained that individual members of the subcommittee have had conversations about the Honor System with faculty. Flanigan also noted that faculty members are more than welcome to recommend proposals, but emphasized that students have the right to govern their own constitution.
“There have been months of discussion. We’re just putting this reform up to the vote of the student body,” Negrón-Reichard said.
The referenda, which will be voted on from Tuesday to Thursday of this week, will need three-fourths of the vote to pass. Each referendum can be voted on independently from one another.