Honor Committee Reform No. 1: Making cheating easier for Princetonians everywhere| Dec 11, 2017
Anybody smart enough to be admitted to Princeton should have realized what really ought to have been an obvious fact about cheating at the University: people don’t refrain from cheating because of their impeccable moral compasses. Rather, they do so because they’re scared of the consequences that will follow if they do cheat. People at Princeton are like people anywhere else — they’re selfish. When they think cheating will get them a better grade, they’ll do it barring grave consequences, because a better grade gets them their better consulting job, or better law school acceptance, or better fellowship opportunity. Reform number one, which proposes dismembering existing penalties for cheating and reduces them to mere disciplinary probation — a sad joke of a punishment — is, without any doubt, going to increase the prevalence of cheating at Princeton, devaluing your work and mine.
Something I think you should know about disciplinary probation, the only punishment for cheating that proponents for reform would like: it doesn’t show up on student transcripts, which is what employers, graduate schools, and similar organizations look at when you — and your cheating peers — apply to them. It only appears on your “permanent record.” So unless companies and law schools are going to start asking for the permanent record of every single student (hint: they won’t, because nothing about an average applicant’s application could possibly tip them off), reform number one is going to reduce the standard penalty for cheating to nearly nothing.
Is over-punishment a bad thing? Yes, of course, that seems rather sensible to say. Does that mean we should get rid of basically all of the effective punishment we currently have? No, that’s rather less sensible, because the results of under-punishment would be far more disastrous and affect far more people at Princeton. Additionally, the stakes here, at a university, are a bit different than those in the standard cases of over-punishment in society. For starters, you’re at an academic institution. You had just one job! Do your work, and don’t cheat on it! It is hard to get convicted, and I’m sorry to say this, but false positives are just rare given high standards for evidence and the adversarial process of the Honor Committee. Second, if we get rid of the harsh punishment we have now, however incommensurable with the violation committed, something tells me the students of tomorrow won’t vote to increase the penalty to something sensible like being forced to fail the class one cheats in, because frankly, that’s politically untenable here. So, while hearing the SPEAR President analogize Honor Code policy to criminal justice reform is interesting, and maybe even poetic if one is feeling generous, the comparison is just a bit disingenuous, and frankly ridiculous.
The upshot: people getting the grades that they deserve — in other words, those based on their abilities and the work that they put in — is wholly contingent on their inability to gain unfair advantages by cheating on exams. The reason they don’t cheat is exactly because the punishment for cheating is severe. Getting rid of that would just increase the amount of cheating, and severely devalue the hard work that most Princeton students put in by making sure they have nothing distinct to show for it. That’s why it’s important to vote against reform number one to the Honor Code.
Sinan Ozbay is a junior studying Philosophy from Princeton, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.