Thursday, October 22

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Letter to the Editor: Oppose the Honor Committee referenda

This week, the student body will be asked to vote on four referendum questions that would make significant changes to Princeton’s student-run Honor System. As members of Undergraduate Student Government (USG) and a former member of the Honor Committee (HC), we the undersigned believe that these referenda are the result of a highly problematic deliberative process by certain members of USG. On substance, these referenda would make the Honor Constitution untenable as a meaningful way to handle academic integrity violations on in-class examinations at Princeton. Most notably, the proposal to change the standard penalty for Honor Code violations from a one-year suspension to disciplinary probation would result in an unsustainable disparity between penalties in cases before the Honor Committee and the Faculty-Student Committee on Discipline (CoD), creating an unfair system with inconsistent penalties for similar violations. The student body should reject these proposals and, instead, support a more responsible process for potential Honor System reforms already being undertaken this spring by a University Task Force composed of students, faculty, and administrators.

These referenda to fundamentally change Princeton’s 124 year-old Honor System were proposed by a self-selecting subcommittee created less than two months ago. On Oct. 8, USG Academics Chair Patrick Flanigan ’18 proposed the creation of a subcommittee of the USG Academics Committee on the Honor Constitution. Flanigan made it clear from the onset that the subcommittee’s conclusions would almost certainly be to reform the Honor Constitution, regardless of what they heard from students and faculty, because he only appointed members who were already open to reform. No members of the Academics Committee, which works on academic policy issues each year, were appointed to the subcommittee. The subcommittee’s only major student outreach was a feedback form distributed on social media and listservs on Nov. 10, and in publicly available USG meeting materials there is no clear indication of the extent of the subcommittee’s conversations with members of the faculty. Less than two months after the subcommittee’s creation, the student body was informed on Nov. 28 that there would be a referendum on Honor Constitution reforms. 


The hasty nature of this process has effectively stifled meaningful debate on quite serious changes to the Honor Constitution. In fact, it was so hurried that USG even had to retroactively change its own rules for student referenda to put these questions on the ballot in a three week election cycle instead of the normal five weeks. The subcommittee is asking the student body to significantly reduce the severity of the penalty for cheating on an examination at Princeton without having itself undertaken a rigorous process of gathering feedback from important stakeholders. The current Chair and Clerk of the Honor Committee were not consulted on the specific reforms the subcommittee is asking students to support. Many members of the USG Academics Committee were not consulted on the subcommittee’s proposals and were as surprised as the rest of the student body to find out that a group of students ostensibly organized as a subcommittee of their own committee were proposing a vote on changing the Honor System. Student members of the CoD were similarly not consulted despite the effect of these changes on their important work. Finally, the subcommittee failed to meaningfully consult administrators or the faculty more broadly. Failing to engage with these groups and others makes plain the imprudent process that led to these referenda questions.

While referendum questions two through four have their own issues, we are most concerned about the proposal to change the standard penalty for Honor Code violations. Currently, both the CoD, which handles cases that do not involve in-class examinations and other University disciplinary proceedings, and the HC have a standard penalty of a one-year suspension for students found responsible for violating the University’s standards of academic integrity. Should question one be adopted, the penalty for violations of the Honor Constitution would no longer be consistent with Rights, Rules, Responsibilities because the HC would use disciplinary probation for first offenses while the CoD would continue to use one-year suspension for similar, if not less serious violations of academic integrity. 

Even if students believe the current standard penalty is too harsh, adopting this referendum question would immediately create an unfair system where cheating on examinations is punished less severely than plagiarism on papers and assignments. This issue demonstrates why any significant changes to the University’s disciplinary system must be undertaken in concert with faculty and administrators to avoid contradictions between different parts of the system. The already-formed task force on the University’s disciplinary system is the best way to meaningfully examine whether changes are necessary to the HC and CoD. While some students might be frustrated at the slow pace of reform, this is the only way to avoid creating disparate punishments for students and ensure that the system does not contradict itself.

The substance and procedural basis of the Honor Constitution referenda should concern all students. Without even releasing a promised final report to the USG Senate summarizing its reasoning, this subcommittee is asking students to vote, with only a week of public discussion, on serious changes to fundamental elements of the academic integrity system at Princeton. For the reasons outlined above and many others we could list, we urge students to vote no and, instead, participate in more prudent efforts to examine the potential need for reform of the Honor Committee and Committee on Discipline.


Connor Pfeiffer ’18, Member of the USG Academics Committee


Ethan Marcus ’18, U-Councilor

Stuart Pomeroy ’18, former member of the Honor Committee

 Pfeiffer is a member of the 'Prince' Editorial Board.

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