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Proportionate penalty: Comments from former Honor Committee members

By now, you’ve likely heard that there are four referenda on the ballot for next Tuesday proposing reform to the Honor Code. Why is such reform necessary? I hope you’ll read this and find out.

I was on the Honor Committee from my freshman spring to sophomore fall; I joined with the intention of reforming things and injecting compassion into a system I heard was rather punitive and even vicious. As I came to find, it’s both these things, with the issues stemming from two places.


First, they come from the many, though not solely, punitive-minded individuals the Honor Committee tends to attract. More importantly, they stem from structural flaws of the Honor Code that empower a small group of students to exert disproportionate influence over fellow students’ lives while operating in a black box, with no accountability and few checks on their authority.

This danger is compounded by the high stakes of each Committee ruling: the standard penalty is a one year suspension, regardless of intent or severity of violation (read: you will be suspended equally for not knowing calculators weren't allowed and for having brought in a water bottle with the answers written on the label).

So, several students, including elected USG officials and current and former Honor Committee members, began to formally explore Honor Code reform. Drawing on knowledge accrued from our varied experiences, we met at least weekly, solicited student input, spoke with professors, and studied the Code itself to envision a fairer Honor System.

Some students have expressed skepticism of the potential behind these referenda. How many referenda have we seen create yet another committee? These referenda are critical chiefly because they will implement direct change. Article VI of the Honor Constitution gives students the direct authority to make change. So, fear not that your vote will contribute to an ineffective bureaucratic process bearing no fruit; instead, you’ll make a direct impact.

The first reform is the most controversial: Won’t reducing the standard penalty to probation and failure of exam mean that Princeton doesn’t value academic integrity? In a word, no. Not only does it establish a more proportionate response to violations, but it also actually reaffirms Princeton’s commitment to academic integrity. 

Ideally, the Honor Code would consider intent. Such consideration includes a gradated list of penalties corresponding to severity of violation. Unfortunately, this is unlikely and undesirable for several reasons. Beyond it being impossible for relatively untrained students to adjudicate intent, I am extremely wary of codifying the subjectivity involved in determining intent, given that the committee generally attracts punitive membership.


Therefore, we are left with a system that imposes blanket punishments for Honor Code violations. This leaves two options. First, we could make policy based on worst-case scenarios: students who maliciously, purposefully cheat. Or, we could make policy that is proportionately punitive to average instances of academic dishonesty. These include students who didn’t know their actions violated the Code, and students experiencing panic and mental health crises. 

As a former member who investigated and adjudicated many cases, I can tell you that these are the average violations. Rarely did I see intentional, malicious cheating. This in no way excuses violations of the Code. However, it forces the question: why are we making policy that reflects the worst-case scenario? We must find a penalty that reflects the average academic integrity violation.

Further, as it stands, there are many people who would never report an academic integrity violation, because they believe what they saw was too minor to merit a year of ostracism. For this reason, implementing a reasonable penalty will serve to facilitate the efficacy of the Honor Code; knowing that peers will be treated appropriately, students will be willing to report violations, allowing for a truer grasp on academic integrity violations at Princeton and removing the subjectivity of reporting. Put simply, an overly-draconian code is an ineffective one, and must be changed if we are to take academic integrity seriously at Princeton.

Lastly, it is also important to mention that one-year suspensions disparately impact students of different backgrounds. While some students can afford gap-year programs and unpaid internships, such opportunities are cost-prohibitive to low-income students. International students may not be able to obtain a renewed visa. Most students face the social ramifications of estrangement from one’s class year.

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The opposition party claims that our referenda are not the product of sufficient campus discourse, implying that these suggestions have come from our Committee’s agenda alone. This is a misleading claim. Two years ago (my freshman spring), 95 percent of voters affirmed a referendum urging Honor Code reform. While it didn’t pass due to threshold limitations, the student body has demanded reform. Those discussions continued over the past several years, both informally, as well as through the initiative of Honor Committee members (myself and others who brought our concerns to the Chair, and have discussed with various faculty members). Thus, these referenda are firmly nested within two years of formal and informal discourse.

Furthermore, the Honor Code has undergone consistent change since its creation in 1893. Serving as a contract for academic integrity between students and faculty, we have consistently renegotiated the terms of our contract as is our enumerated right. These referenda are simply another installment in our continual pursuit of high systemic quality.

The opposition party claims that we must forestall this chance for democratic student response to the Code by first allowing a University committee to discuss. They recommend that instead of students voicing their opinions, we sack these referenda in favor of — you guessed it — another University committee! What’s more, this new committee will be co-chaired by the current Honor Committee Chair, the same person who is leading the opposition party. Forgive me if I’m skeptical of this attempt to suppress student voices while concentrating power in the hands of those who run the Honor Committee. 

I have no faith in the transformative potentiality of University committees, and nor should you. One example: last year, a University Committee featured administrators, faculty, and students. Chair Liziewski referenced this committee’s report in last Sunday’s USG meeting; however, this report is unavailable to the public. Why weren’t we able to see those recommendations? Is it because publicizing them would show how little was actually recommended, revealing cosmetic reform instead of substantive change? Most optimistically, the report recommended substantive change with no intent to implement.

The opposition has also made vague arguments about the legality of inconsistent penalties between the Honor Committee and the Committee on Discipline. These legal arguments are never explicated – we’re expected to trust the opposition that it’s impossible to change the standard penalty. However, it’s not students’ responsibility to protect the University from legal liability; rather, we must create the most equitable system possible with the referenda power endowed to us. If it must be adjusted, let the administration respond. Let them change the CoD standards; another committee operating on an unfair penalty should not constrict the Honor Constitution; our system is explicitly not subject to administrative constraints, and nor should our considerations be as we attempt to change it.

Students should not live in fear of our Honor System; we should be proud of it. So, next Tuesday, Nov. 12, I hope that you’ll exercise your right and enact Honor Reform. 

Micah Herskind is a junior in African American Studies from Buffalo, N.Y. He can be reached at