Reading the outcome of the Honor Code referenda in The Daily Princetonian, I felt as if Princeton had arrived at a momentous occasion — 64 percent of the student population (around 3,330 people) had turned out to vote overwhelmingly in support of the referenda — but I was unsure whether I was to celebrate or mourn. I felt like a small child standing in front of the remnants of a ruined supermarket display tower: As a hundred toppled-over cans rolled around me, I realized that we had just done something, but I wasn’t sure what we’d done.
The Honor System needed reform. I’m just not convinced a rushed referendum was the right way of doing it.
When I first saw the referenda posed in the Undergraduate Student Government all-school email, I felt intuitively inclined to vote “yes” on each one. My ears flooded with emotionally arousing stories that pitted us against the shadowy organization called the Honor Committee and its unjust rule.
None of these stories, however, gave me empirical evidence or logical reasoning for why I should vote “yes” or “no” on each of the four referenda. When we actually moved to the ballot, what were we voting for? I cannot tell if all four referenda passed because we were voting on specific policy changes or because we were demonstrating overwhelming support for general reform.
Before voting, I would have liked to have known the alternatives to referenda: I read that reform was already being undertaken by a University task force composed of students, faculty, and administrators. No one informed me as to why this task force was being overridden by referendum. Was it because the task force was ineffective, or was it because people were getting impatient about change?
The referenda were rushed to the ballot three weeks before we voted (whereas on page 19, the USG elections rulebook states referenda must be posed five weeks in advance) which gave the opposition party little time to organize and present a compelling reason to vote “no.” The opposition party ended up being members of the Honor Committee — a conflict of interest given that the Honor Committee must inherently be disinterested when dealing with matters surrounding the Honor System. In the absence of equally matched opposition and pro-referendum parties, “vote, vote, vote” became synonymous with “vote YES, vote YES, vote YES.”
As for the rushed nature of the election cycle, I was not even able to parse the wording of the first referendum until the very day elections opened. On Dec. 12, peer representatives explained that by passing this referendum, “writing overtime on exams, infractions that violate course policy due to lack of proper attention (like accidentally bringing in a calculator), and more intentional infractions (like looking up answers) [would] all merit the same punishment: disciplinary probation.” This would give radically different violations the same baseline punishment. It would also create a disparity between cases dealt with by the Committee on Discipline and the Honor Committee: A student who plagiarized on an in-class assessment would receive disciplinary probation while a student who plagiarized on a homework assignment would be suspended for a year.
Pro-referendum advocates had us convinced that the pinnacle of change rested on this ballot, on this election. But voting “no” on the referenda meant delaying a reckless change in order to examine the finer facts, not opposing reform. The simple fact is, these referenda may not have been our best or only recourse for reform.
Let us be discerning and cautious when approaching sweeping changes like this one, insistent on gleaning all the facts before making our decision. We all see the beauty in our student-run Honor System. Let us not desecrate it in our blind pursuit of hurried change. I ask only for patience, and informed decision-making as we move forward and approach future issues as impactful as this one.
Allison Huang is a first-year from Princeton, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.