Academic integrity is one of the core values of the University community. For many of us, it influenced our decision in choosing Princeton over other schools. Maintaining the highest standard of academic integrity is indeed a cardinal responsibility of all Princeton students. However, as a former Honor Committee member, I solemnly believe that the current Honor Constitution is not serving its core objective to the best of its capabilities, and therefore requires immediate reform.
We sit in a room, a group of self-selected judges, and we deliberate on people’s futures. We investigate, look at “evidence,” and, in the event we find a student responsible, we punish. However, it just so happens that the punishment we inflict severely affects not only a student’s future academic and professional prospects, but can also have serious effects on their mental health.
At first, I thought being on the Honor Committee served a righteous cause (and to a very large extent, I still think it does), but what the idealistic freshman in me learned after serving on the Honor Committee is that power is contagious, and it can easily go to people’s heads. There are several structural failures in the Honor Constitution which enable this rampant power, and demand policy reform.
First, the current punishments are too harsh and often do not commensurate with the alleged violation. If someone unintentionally violates the Honor Code, the Honor Committee will suspend them for a year. The same goes with someone undergoing a mental health crisis. With the low bar of evidence needed for moving to a hearing, the lack of information provided to the student in question, the general inflexibility of Committee members, the lack of reliance on legal precedent, and a lack of an administrative or student check on the committee, we have created a flawed system that does more to empower committee members than to maintain the highest principles of academic integrity.
The standard punishment of a year-long suspension for the first offense and expulsion for the second offence, without extenuating circumstances, are too harsh by any measure. They are, in fact, harsher than those at almost every other school with an honor code. Further, this standard punishment is rendered regardless of the violation’s magnitude or the student’s intent. Changing it to disciplinary probation would not only pave the way for a more forgiving system, but would also lead to higher rates of reporting.
Currently, students don’t know if they are being called as a witness or being accused when they are initially contacted. As a Committee member, I have had multiple awkward phone calls with students demanding to know whether they are the accused. For those who don’t know how it works, let me make it explicitly clear. Your phone rings from a restricted number. You pick up — there is an Honor Committee investigator (one of the students on the Committee) on the other end. They call you to the Honor Committee office, refusing to disclose your status, even after you ask. You might be the accused. You might not be. Your heart skips a beat when you leave whatever you were up to and run frantically to the Honor Committee office. Don’t you think this warrants change?
Lastly, under the current Constitution, it is really up to the individual members to decide whether they consider mental health within the extenuating circumstances of the case. Officially, however, the Constitution fails to consider it within the parameters of extenuating circumstances. In cases involving mental health issues, this lack of consideration might further worsen the student’s health. Imagine a student with suicidal tendencies who is still suspended or expelled by the committee. How would such a decision impact that student?
Honor Committee reform is not only necessary but also inevitable in order to make the academic misconduct proceedings fairer, while also achieving the core goal of maintaining the highest standards of academic integrity. There is a lot more that I want to share but cannot, given the confidential nature of the cases. I would, however, strongly urge you to vote for the referenda!
Hassan Ejaz Chaudhry is a senior in operations research and financial engineering from Lahore, Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.