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Mercy should be the guiding principle of Honor Code reform

On March 26, the Honor System Review Committee discussed its preliminary findings regarding the three suspended referenda — which were passed with overwhelming support by the student body — at a Council of the Princeton University Community meeting. The Committee took great issue with the first and third referenda, which would reduce the Honor Code’s standard penalty of a one-year suspension to academic probation and exonerate suspected students if their professor claimed they did not violate the Honor Code, respectively. The Committee “revised the wording” of the second referendum, which “originally required two pieces of evidence in order for a case to move forward.”

The condemnation of the first referendum is particularly striking. The Committee claimed the referendum was problematic, as it “would create a disparity between punishments from the Honor Committee, which focuses on in-class violations, and from the Committee on Discipline, which focuses on a broader range of out-of-class infractions.”


It is highly disappointing that the first referendum would create this inequitable disparity. Likewise, the first referendum, if enacted, would retain a standard penalty (albeit a less punitive one) for all first-time offenses. A standard penalty is dangerously unfair, as it treats all Honor Code infractions as equally immoral and severe — without accounting for intent or motive. Some Honor Code violations are malicious and premeditated, but others are completely unintentional and simply careless errors; the latter violations should be treated with a reasonable level of mercy rather than with the more punitive responses the former violations warrant. All in all, I believe that Honor Code punishments should be equalized between the Honor Committee and the Committee on Discipline and that the penalties for Honor Code infractions should be degraded in proportion to the severity of the offence.

Outside of the University’s Honor Code proceedings, the principle of proportional, degraded punishment is the framework for policing legal and ethical violations. A ten-year-old who steals Tic Tacs from a local candy shop is punished less harshly than an adult who robs $1,000,000 from a bank at gunpoint; although both people committed a form of theft, the ten-year-old’s offence is objectively less harmful than the bank robber’s. Thus, the ten-year-old is likely to be punished less severely, if convicted.

The same principle should exist within the Honor Code. All acts of cheating, of course, are wrong. But some acts of cheating are significantly less malicious than others. A first-year student who accidentally violates the Honor Code on a problem set has committed a less severe ethical offence than a senior who intentionally plagiarizes an entire chapter of a senior thesis to gain a qualitative advantage. Although acts of carelessness are problematic, they are certainly not as ethically compromising as deliberate, premeditated acts of cheating.

At the March 26 meeting where the Committee’s preliminary findings were discussed, “[President Christopher L.] Eisgruber defended the process [of faculty examining the suspended referenda], distinguishing between referenda that simply have to do with ‘procedures’ – like the fourth referendum, which was approved — and the other three, which have to do with ‘principles.’” He also stated, “If you lessen across the board the likelihood or the punishments that exist for cheating, at that point you undermine what are principles that are critical for what this university does.”

I absolutely agree that reforms that change the basic procedures of the Honor Code are distinct from reforms that alter the fundamental moral and ethical principles of the Honor Code. But I believe that compassion, reason, and mercy should be synthesized with a promotion of total academic integrity as core principles of the University’s Honor Code. In addition, faculty alone should not be the ones to establish the University’s principles — especially pertaining to the Honor Code, which has a direct and disproportionately substantial impact on student life. Faculty should take students’ frustration with the Honor Code and their referenda vote seriously and reform the Honor Code in a sensible and collaborative fashion. Establishing a degraded, non-standardized, and more reasonably merciful Honor Code penalty system — which applies equally to in-class and out-of-class infractions — is one way to retain faculty supervision of the Honor Code and respect students’ desire for reform; if this type of reform were enacted, faculty would reinforce their ultimate authority over academic integrity (they would still be rejecting the student referenda), and students would get at least some of what they want: a less punitive Honor Code. 

Likewise, Eisgruber’s assertion that fundamental changes to the Honor Code could mitigate the Honor Code’s deterrent effect is well-founded yet incomplete. Deterrence must be paired with second chances and rehabilitative, rather than simply punitive, consequences, in accordance with the severity of the academic infraction at hand. Of course, thievish ten-year-olds would be much less likely to steal Tic Tacs from a candy shop if the punishment for their crime was a sentence of twenty years in prison. But the cost of having such a draconian punishment, that is, the punitive aspect of such a penalty, outweighs its positive deterrent effect. 


Thus, the current, standard, non-degraded penalty for a first-time Honor Code violation, a one-year suspension, is unreasonably harsh for unmalicious, accidental Honor Code infractions. A one-year suspension can significantly detract a student’s academic and pre-professional progress, as it removes students from the collegiate environment for an extended period of time and adds a moral stain to students’ academic background. Additionally, one-year suspensions are disastrous for low-income, disadvantaged students, who may not have the financial and social resources to take a year off from school.

Consequently, one-year suspensions and more severe penalties should be reserved for only those students who commit unequivocally intentional acts of cheating that give them a substantial qualitative advantage or for students who violate the Honor Code two or more times. Other less malicious acts of cheating — such as accidentally citing a source incorrectly or acts of cheating that occur due to mental illness — should be given more rehabilitative punishments that allow students to learn from their mistakes and continue their academic progress on schedule. Such penalties could include a failing grade in the course in which the violation occurred, a temporary restriction on extracurricular or athletic participation, mandatory academic and psychological counseling, or academic probation.

I wholeheartedly embrace the University’s ethos of absolute academic integrity. Without integrity, our intellectual achievements are fundamentally meaningless, as honesty — an expression of total truth — and scholarship are inseparable. Therefore, a strong Honor Code that deters acts of academic wrongdoing is an undeniably necessary element of academic life at the University. Nevertheless, I believe our Honor Code would be strengthened and further legitimized if students found guilty of cheating were punished in accordance with the severity of their violation. Deterrence and mercy need not be mutually exclusive. A reasonable and compassionate Honor Code that punishes violators proportionally and recognizes the moral necessity of second chances and rehabilitation, as well as deterrence, is an Honor Code of strength, justice, and integrity.

Samuel Aftel is a sophomore from East Northport, N.Y. He can be reached at

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