The USG pitchforks are out, and this time there is a new target: Princeton’s 124-year-old honor system. Princeton students are being asked by a USG sub-committee to vote yes on four referenda, including a reduction in the severity of punishment for cheating on a Princeton exam to disciplinary probation, a change that would fundamentally alter Princeton’s honor system. This proposal is both bad policy and a result of a biased and highly imprudent process. As the longest-tenured member of the USG Academics Committee, I have seen how USG can positively influence University policy from calendar reform to departmental requirements. This referendum, however, represents the exact opposite: a hasty attempt by certain members of USG to change an important policy without consulting faculty and administrators or considering the consequences. This is the wrong way to pursue reform. I think most students can agree that changes are needed to our Honor System. But disciplinary probation is simply too lenient of a penalty for cheating during an in-class exam, and we need faculty and administrator support so that more options for reform, like a one-semester suspension as standard penalty, can be on the table. I urge students to vote no on the first referendum and instead support a more responsible process for reform already taking place this spring.
Attempting to alter the Honor System in such a consequential way without buy-in from faculty and administrators is both imprudent and potentially dangerous because it creates a disparity in penalties between the Honor Committee and the Committee on Discipline, and it reduces the prospect of better reforms. As a piece I co-authored explained, making a unilateral change without also changing the penalty used by the Committee on Discipline for cases not involving in-class exams creates an unfair system in which, for instance, plagiarism on a paper can result in a one-year suspension, whereas cheating on an exam results in probation. An op-ed on Monday Dec. 11 responded to this point by arguing, “if [the penalty] must be adjusted, let the administration respond. Let them change the CoD standards.” This is naïve and ignores the core feature of the Honor System: it is a contract between the faculty and students. As someone who has sat on two different faculty committees over the past three years, I can tell you that the faculty will not react well to the student body dictating that they should support a more lenient penalty for cheating. Nor should they! It takes time to change important policy because so many stakeholders are involved, and the faculty will not be rushed into correcting an unnecessary problem created by the student body.
Additionally, ignoring the faculty in this process has an even more pernicious impact for students: It reduces the chance of other reforms to the whole system. The student body and USG will have much less credibility to lobby the faculty for reforms like a one-semester penalty after adopting a unilateral reduction to the standard penalty on the Honor Committee without considering the disparity it would create with the Committee on Discipline. This also damages the prospect for reforms to the Committee on Discipline, a source of many student frustrations based on conversations I have had this week.
Putting aside the process of reform, changing the standard penalty to probation effectively guts the punishment for cheating on exams at Princeton. If the first referendum receives three quarters of the vote this week, the new standard penalty will be “disciplinary probation and a recommendation to fail the examination on which the violation occurred.” Probation does not show up on your transcript, making it meaningless unless you commit an additional offense or apply for an opportunity that asks for your permanent record. While some Princeton opportunities ask for a permanent record, most jobs and other outside opportunities do not. Additionally, the referendum changes the Honor Committee’s recommendation, where students still receive credit for a semester, from failing the course to failing just the exam in question. This means a student could still pass a course in which they violated the Honor Code if this referendum passes.
Having a strong, student-run system for enforcing cheating on exams is a point of pride for me as a Princeton student, and I cannot support a proposal to reduce the severity of the penalty for violating our shared Honor Code in such a dramatic way. While a one-year suspension may be too harsh, probation is too lenient. If students want another option to be possible for the Honor Committee and Committee on Discipline, like a one-semester suspension, then we need faculty support to change the University’s current rules. The Task Force convening this spring has the potential to do just that, but passing the first referendum will only damage these efforts.
Connor Pfeiffer, a senior in the history department from San Antonio, Texas, is a member of the USG Academics Committee and The Daily Princetonian Editorial Board. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.