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Photo Caption: The office of the Undergraduate Student Government in Frist Campus Center.

Photo Credit: Isabel Ting / The Daily Princetonian

Over 84 percent of participating students voted in favor of the fifth Honor Code referendum included in the 2018 Undergraduate Student Government spring elections. The referendum will allow for the evaluation and replacement of the clerk and chair of the Honor Committee.

“The ‘yes’ votes [point] to the fact that there needs to be more accountability in this all-powerful chair position,” former USG Academics Chair Patrick Flanigan ’18 said.

Currently, if a student is in question of violating the Honor Code, the chair of the Honor Committee presides over the investigation, decides whether the investigation goes to hearing, choose the members who will attend the hearing, and presides over every hearing and deliberation, Flanigan explained.

He noted that the referendum is not a direct statement about any individual chair, but rather of the overall position.

Micah Herskind ’19, one of the more vocal opponents of the referendum, drew attention to Section D, which states that after the Review Committee completes its evaluation of the existing Chair or Clerk, “The independent committee will then determine by a two-thirds vote whether the sitting Clerk or Chair will be replaced in their executive capacity by the member submitting the evaluation.”

Herskind’s main criticism was that the accountability measure is linked to personal gain, as the Honor Committee member who brings forward the evaluation stands to become the new Chair. Further, he added that the newest referendum only allows current members of the Honor Committee to challenge or request for an evaluation of the existing Chair or Clerk, excluding members of the general student body from raising concerns about the committee leadership.

Although last semester he was part of the subcommittee under the USG Academics Committee that helped pass the previous four referendums on the Honor Code, Herskind voted against this fifth referendum.

“Essentially, one member of the committee can challenge the [existing] chair to a duel, and the winner of the duel becomes the chair,” explained Herskind. “So not only is the evaluation committee deciding if the current chair is competent, but they are doing so in relation to the challenger. Accountability should not be tied to personal gain.”

The evaluation committee is made up of USG and Honor Committee members.

Herskind acknowledged that the referendum was intended to increase the accountability of the Honor Committee, which is “notoriously opaque [and] lacks any semblance of transparency,” but he ultimately believed that the new referendum would increase the toxicity of the committee.

“It will make a bad system worse,” said Herskind.

However, many students “just heard the phrase ‘accountability’” and associated this reform with the previous ones and checked the “yes” box, as seen in the overwhelming percentage of students who voted in favor of the referendum, Herskind said.

“The overarching problem is that some people think that any change is good change,” said Herskind. “I just don’t think that’s the case.”

Herskind added that the best-case scenario, after the implementation of the referendum, is that nothing changes, but that the worst-case scenario would lead to more infighting and toxicity within the committee, creating a burden that then falls on the students that stand before the Honor Committee.

“What if neither the current chair or the challenger is good? Then you’re still going to left with two bad options,” Herskind pointed out.

Herskind explained that since he served on the Honor Committee from his freshman fall through his sophomore spring, he has “seen how toxic” the committee is.

“I joined [the Honor Committee] because I wanted to try to reform things from the inside,” explained Herskind. “But I realized there were structural changes that needed to change that I couldn’t take on from the inside. It is not worth my time to participate inside the system.”

Now, having left all USG and Honor Code committees, Herskind said he chooses to focus on the structural changes of the committee that he can make as “a concerned citizen.”

Class of 2019 President Chris Umanzor initially proposed the referendum, because he believed that there “needed to be greater accountability to the students.”

Beginning in the second week of April when campaigns began, Umanzor strived to convince students to vote for the referendum through email distributions, an informal Communications Committee, and individual conversations. Although the referendum overwhelmingly passed, Umanzor “was surprised” at such large support from the student body.

“I was incredibly humbled and excited when I found out how many students chose to support the referendum,” said Umanzor. “I did not expect for those numbers to be quite as high. It is always better to enter a campaign without thinking that the student body is going to completely support the proposal, because that forces you to craft the proposal more precisely.”

Umanzor stipulated in Section D of the referendum that only current committee members can challenge or request an evaluation because he wanted to ensure that committee members feel like they “[have] a say” and that they are “welcome to hold their leadership accountable.” He added that only “someone who has familiarity with the Honor Committee and how it functions” should be able to challenge the leadership.

Umanzor explained that although only current committee members can act, the general student population can voice their concerns about the chair or clerk through other means, such as the ‘Prince’ or through their respective USG elected representatives, such as a Senator, U-Councilor, or the USG President. 

Umanzor is a former news writer for the ‘Prince.’

In response to the possibility of power-hungry students using this referendum to obtain higher positions, he explained that this concern is unrealistic.

“It is not a particularly sound assumption to think that students will pursue this process for personal gain,” said Umanzor. “I have a lot more faith in the student body.”

Moreover, Umanzor pointed out that there is a “very high bar” that must be met before existing chairs or clerks are replaced by the challengers, since the evaluation is decided by elected representatives, current committee members, and former members.

“It is also important to note that the Chair position is not a glorified role,” Umanzor added. “It requires a lot of hours and is a selfless, thankless job. There is not much glory that comes from it.”

He reported that there is a very small application pool for clerkship — only one student applied this year.

“The most important thing at the end of the day is for students to voice their opinion,” emphasized Umanzor.

Undergraduate Student Government President Rachel Yee ’19 agreed that the referendum will emphasize the importance of USG elections, since the USG will help arbitrate the review of the clerk or chair in the evaluation committee. 

“We will be working closely with the referendum to make sure it is implementable,” Yee said. “We will keep everyone informed on what the process looks like after we figure out how it will be implemented.” 

Flanigan added that although internal reforms of the Honor Committee are important, the focus should be on finding a penalty that does not punish students with a year-long suspension when they make an honest mistake.

In an email statement, Chair of the Honor Committee Elizabeth Haile ’19 wrote, “The Honor Committee acknowledges the passage of the referendum and intends to work with the USG in the coming weeks to discuss concerns of Honor Committee and USG members about the implementation of the review process enumerated in the referendum.”

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