Editor's Note: The author was granted anonymity due to the risk of harm to or retaliation against the author.
My story is one of egregious abuse by the Honor Committee, and it shows what happens when you give a self-selecting jury the unchecked authority to dictate students’ futures.
I took my midterm exam at 7:30 p.m. After finishing my exam, I signed the Honor Code, and wrote “see back” on the margins to orient the grader to the work on the back of one of my exam pages. In the following days, I received a terrifying call that I think this campus is all too familiar with. Of course, I was not informed of my status, but was forced to walk all the way to Nassau St. to the Honor Committee. This is the first reason I support the proposed reforms.
I was told that a student identified me by name, claiming that I continued to work past the initial time call. As a result, the Honor Committee opened an investigation. The investigators approached the proctor of the exam, who stated that he saw a female student who was using a calculator after he called time. The investigators described the proctor’s process of identifying the student characteristics as “somewhat complicated.” The proctor noted that this student was “female … that she was not Caucasian, had dark hair, that she was not one of [his/her] students, and was “fairly sure” she was not Asian. When given a face chart of students in the class, the proctor was asked to identify eight students who could have been the culprit. I was not one of these eight individuals. In a second round of identification, the proctor identified another three students who could have been the culprits. I again was not one of these.
In spite of the fact that the proctor never identified me, Honor Committee investigators justified their decision to move forward with my investigation. This is the second reason I think the proposed reforms are really important – specifically, the proposal requiring two pieces of evidence that indicate that a student is guilty. Interestingly, the Committee did use two pieces of evidence, but they were neither corroborating, nor did they indicate guilt. In my case, the two pieces of evidence were: 1) a reporting witness identified me by name but wrongly claimed I was wearing an orange sweater (I don’t own an orange sweater), and 2) the proctor described a female student with dark hair who was neither white nor Asian who was using a calculator and seated in a particular area.
The third reason I support the referendum arises when we consider the little attention the Honor Committee gave to instructor input. In a conversation with the proctor after my hearing had taken place, the proctor told me he/she had made it explicitly clear to the Committee that in choosing from the face chart, if a student was not selected, the proctor could 100% rule them out as not being the student he/she saw. With this, the Committee should have been able to confirm I was not the student working overtime. The proctor’s identification was not “complicated” as the Committee described – it simply was not me. Moreover, the Committee withheld crucial information from me, information the professor provided them early in the investigative process. The head professor of the course made it explicit to the Committee that strict time cutoffs were not a common practice in the course. Students are given time to wrap up their exams and quizzes, as even an additional five minutes, in the professor’s opinion, would not be enough time to gain a sufficient advantage given the nature of the exam questions. I was not made aware of this information by the Committee itself. It was not until I sat down and told my professor I had an Honor Committee hearing for a time violation that I found out the professor had already spoken with the Committee about course policy. Upon approaching the Committee’s leadership regarding this withholding of information, the Committee went back through their notes and added this crucial piece of information to my case’s document. In the end, however, the Honor Committee ruled 6-1 that I would be put on academic probation with censure until graduation. Their reasoning: they decided that in writing “see back,” I attempted to gain an unfair advantage.
The Committee’s logic was deeply flawed. Again, the Committee refused to take into consideration professor testimony. Both professors informed the committee during the hearing that they grade the back of the exams. They mentioned that the back sides of exam pages are intentionally left blank for students who need extra space to write in the back. The head of the course also clarified that students do not have to write any note to the grader for their work to be graded, although they are certainly allowed. Both professors clarified that even if a grader were to accidentally miss the work on the back side of the exam, the student would be able to request a regrade for full points.
The Committee justified their penalty by claiming that in other classes, writing on the back of pages is not necessarily graded unless there is a note to signal or inform the grader to the work. How can a reasonable comparison be made to judge what is considered an unfair advantage among different courses? For this reason, we need to pass the third reform as to ensure the Honor Committee cannot exploit differences in course policies. This committee made a decision that ignored the specific policies and claims of my professors and exams, and instead considered the entire University exam system as a whole. How can it be that my professors will read what is on the back anyway and treat it as an evaluation of my answer, and yet my writing “see back” is an attempt to gain an unfair advantage? There is no way that I could have attempted to gain an unfair advantage when the advantage is nonexistent.
I wrote an appeal, and I was very fortunate that the decision was completely overturned, but this outcome is actually extremely rare. The unchecked power of the Committee means most students are forced to take a year off. I’m sharing my story because I believe that more people should know about the oversight and problematic nature of the Honor Committee’s investigative and hearing processes. No student should have to face what I went through. I initially came into the process feeling confident in my peers and their judgment, thinking that there was no way they would be overwhelmingly convinced that I had done something wrong. Yet, after they deliberated and decided I was guilty, I realized how broken this system is. As Princetonians, we must ensure that the institutional procedures we are subject to are rigorous and fair. This is absolutely not the current scenario.