Why we need to reform the Honor Constitution: a former Honor Committee member explains
As a referendum sponsor who served on the Honor Committee for two years, I write with the hope that my fellow Princetonians will exercise their right to amend the Honor Constitution and seize the opportunity to create a fairer system by voting “yes” on the four referenda up for voting between Tuesday, Dec. 12, and Thursday, Dec. 14. These referenda reflect many frequent student concerns in addition to issues stemming from dynamics that I bore witness to while a member of the Honor Committee.
I encourage you to read the article by my colleague Micah Herskind ’19 about the need to reform the standard penalties (Referendum 1). Below I will explain why we should also vote to pass Referenda 2–4.
The second referendum sponsored by the USG Subcommittee on the Honor Constitution establishes a minimum standard of “at least two separate pieces of evidence, each of which indicates that a violation occurred” necessary for the Honor Committee to put a student through a hearing. The opposition claims that this standard would force the Chair and investigators to make pre-hearing judgments on the strength of the evidence. Firstly, the Chair’s role of overseeing investigations means that he or she sees all the evidence collected in an investigation, even if some of that evidence doesn’t make it into the hearing room. Because of this role, it is impossible for a Chair to enter a hearing unbiased.
Additionally, I can guarantee from experience that the Honor Committee investigators and Chair already form pre-hearing opinions when deciding whether to send a case to hearing. The Honor Committee currently adheres to a norm, though not a requirement, of having two pieces of corroborating evidence before sending a case to hearing. This means that in a case wherein a student is alleged to have used their phone during an exam, the Honor Committee investigators and Chair are already making decisions about whether the second piece of evidence corroborates that alleged violation (such as the testimony of a second witness) or does not (as with IP records, which the Committee holds as inconclusive).
However, this minimum standard of evidence is not presently a Constitutionally guaranteed right of students, meaning that a student could be sent to hearing without two pieces of evidence against them, and that a chair who wants a student to go to hearing would have the power to overrule two investigators who disagree. This referendum would codify the right all students have to a minimum standard of evidence presented to them before being forced to endure the trauma and strain of undergoing a hearing, which can regularly take six or more hours or even go overnight.
The third referendum necessitates that the Honor Committee find a student not responsible if the professor states that the student’s actions were not in violation of their course policy. Take, for example, a student who is reported for writing overtime in an exam where the professor said, “Alright, the test is over,” to signal the exam’s conclusion. That professor can inform the Committee that they meant to give students time to wrap up their final thought, and the Committee can, despite the testimony of the professor, conclude that the student should have dropped their pencil, and will find that student responsible of an Honor Code violation.
The course instructor sets the rules and expectations for exams. An Honor Code violation is an infringement of the policies a professor has set in place. Because the Honor Code is a pact between students and faculty, a professor can play an essential role in clarifying what his or her policies were. It should not be the case that, if a professor testifies before the Committee that a student’s actions were not in violation of their course policy, the Committee still punishes that student regardless.
The fourth referendum requires Honor Committee investigators to inform students whether they are under investigation or are being asked to serve as a witness when they first contact students. Presently, Honor Committee investigators call students from a restricted number and ask them to come to an office on Nassau Street without any information other than that they’d like to speak to them. The opposition claims that withholding from students information about their status allows the Honor Committee to “control the environment in which a student is informed that they are under investigation.” When a student in question comes to the office, it is not Committee procedure to tell these students they have the right to speak with a CPS official. Often, confrontations of students in question occur on weekends, when no CPS official is available. Honor Committee members themselves undergo no mental health training. In short, the Honor Committee in reality does not control the environment in which a student is informed that they are under investigation.
Given that there can be dozens of student witnesses called for a single investigation, the Honor Committee policy of not telling students for what reason they are being called is the greatest unnecessary source of stress and fear among students when it comes to Honor Committee matters. I have interviewed witnesses and students in question alike who come to the office distraught or in tears. Not informing students of their status immediately is a policy the Committee has chosen to adopt to the detriment of the health and well-being of students.
It’s not easy to admit that, as Honor Committee members bound by the rules of the Honor Constitution, we participate in a system that inflicts needless pain on others. But through these referenda, we as students have the opportunity to change that and to re-emphasize Princeton’s value of integrity while creating a fairer system for all.
It is out of compassion and a commitment to justice that I strongly encourage students to vote “yes” on all four referenda this week.
Ling Ritter ’19