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On the Honor Code Referenda: Why aren’t we mobilizing?

Princeton undergraduate students and alumni: You should be absolutely furious right now. We just had our (honor-) constitutionally-endowed rights obliterated by a short email sent by several administrators. These rights were guaranteed to us 125 years ago with the establishment of the Honor Constitution and yet, one well-timed email was enough to dismantle them.

The Honor Committee was created as a contract between faculty and students in 1893. Faculty agreed to turn over the proctoring of in-class exams to students, and students agreed to abide by the Code and report witnessed violations to the newly-established Honor Committee.


While this was a groundbreaking innovation in academic integrity, the Honor Committee has recently taken an overwhelmingly punitive turn, leading to a student referendum two years ago calling for reform. Since then, students have continued conversations on the Code, reporting horror stories of dealings with the Committee and highlighting the Code’s structural flaws. Earlier this year, a group of students convened under the USG Academics Committee to explore much-needed Honor Code reforms. We gathered knowing that, under the Honor Constitution, the student body has the right to amend the Honor Code. 

Article VI, Part A, Section 2 of the Code stipulates that it may be amended “upon the initiative by petition of 200 members of the undergraduate body, followed by a three-fourths vote in a student referendum as conducted by the Elections Committee of the Undergraduate Student Government.”

Our committee obtained 200 petitions on four referenda, which passed by overwhelming margins in USG elections (between 89 and 94 percent) after a week of lively campus debate. Upon hearing the results, students celebrated the historic moment in which they exercised their contractually-guaranteed right to take ownership of the Code.

Four days ago, however, the undergraduate student body received an email from Deans Dolan and Kulkarni and Vice President Calhoun informing us that the administration had overridden the results of the December 2017 student referenda on the Honor Constitution. 

The email claims that despite the establishment of the Honor Code, the “faculty...retained its ultimate authority over all academic matters, including those aspects of discipline it entrusted to the Honor Committee.” Given this, the email notes that the referenda will be remanded to the faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing, whose responsibilities include “the administration of all regulations which concern the program of study and the scholastic standing of undergraduate students.” 

It is true that the faculty have ultimate authority over academic matters. In 1893, they used that authority to sign a contract with students, explicitly giving us power to amend the Code. While faculty certainly have the right to withdraw from the Code, they empowered us to reform it. On the other hand, there are no stipulations in the Honor Code, Rights, Rules, Responsibilities, or the Rules and Procedures of the Faculty allowing faculty or administrators to change the Constitution.


Even still, this decision to remand the referenda did not emerge from faculty, nor will the referenda go to a faculty vote. Instead, the referenda will go to a committee of seven faculty members led by Dean Dolan, who was a signatory on the email remanding the reforms. In fact, faculty were not even notified that these referenda would be remanded. Ultimately, this decision came from administrators who have stripped students of a 125 year-old right. They did so just before reading period began, when students are off campus, bogged down in papers and exams, and unable to adequately respond to this institutional power grab.

The administration was sure to allow the passage of the fourth referendum, in a thinly-veiled attempt to dissolve student protest; give them one, and they can’t be that upset! This is even more apparent, as the stated reason that “changes this significant cannot be implemented without the engagement and support of the faculty” (in itself an extra-constitutional declaration) would not apply to referenda two and three, which make procedural adjustments and actually cede additional power to the faculty by codifying a working norm of two pieces of evidence to proceed to hearing, and assigning professor testimony more weight in investigations.

Princeton’s administration has communicated to its students that it will only play by the rules so long as those rules maintain the status quo. A recent op-ed from Louis Tambellini noted that in advocating for these reforms, I argued that we let the students speak, and let the administration respond accordingly. I made this statement in reference to the penalty disparity across the Honor Committee and the Committee on Discipline (CoD), encouraging the administration to reduce the CoD’s draconian penalty as well. I made these statements in good faith, playing by the rules and exercising the authority granted to students by the Code. However, in their response, administrators threw out the rule book. For someone who raised procedural concerns about the four referenda as originally proposed, Tambellini hypocritically endorses the University disregarding its own procedures.

The University has communicated to its students that we have no ability to make change in our own community. Administrators are willing to reproduce the same obstructionist tactics that have long been plagued the United States government, and consequently have sent a powerful, demoralizing message to students about making change in the world. They’ve told us not to bother with reform, because even when you win, you don’t win. If you find success within one set of rules, they’ll open a new rule book.

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This ever-shifting terrain undercuts any faith students may have in the process. By stripping our long-held rights as students under the Honor Constitution, administrators have called into question whether we ever had those rights in the first place. If our potential for change is constricted by an arbitrary and subjective decision of which reforms are “such significant changes” that the students no longer have control, substantive potential never actually existed. It was only exercising our supposed authority that revealed we have no authority. Instead, the administration has told us that we must continue surveilling each other in exams, but that it will dictate the conditions of that surveillance.

Worst of all, writing this op-ed will accomplish nothing. The University will always have the power to wait out student expression and ignore op-eds; by the time students have the confidence and experience to organize, they are near graduation. This is the University’s perfect recipe for perpetually ignoring student expression.

The only tool we have to ruin that recipe is the public eye. The best chance of changing things at Princeton is outside pressure, because Princeton prizes its reputation above all. Whether you were for or against these referenda, you should be outraged at this act of student disenfranchisement, because when the time comes that you want to change something, you need to know that you can rely on the process. If you care about your rights as a student under the Honor Code that has the potential to suspend and expel you, do something to involve the media. Protest, sit-in, and for those of you who have them, work your media connections. Don’t let the administration get away with this appalling display of institutional resistance to change. 

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