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The moral hypocrisy of a punitive Honor Code

<p>Photo Caption: The office of the Undergraduate Student Government in Frist Campus Center.</p>
<h6>Photo Credit: Isabel Ting / The Daily Princetonian</h6>

Photo Caption: The office of the Undergraduate Student Government in Frist Campus Center.

Photo Credit: Isabel Ting / The Daily Princetonian

“I would dissuade people from attending Princeton just because of the Honor Code.”  

My friend’s words, articulated in a recent conversation, shows students’ passionate, absolute opposition to the University’s current academic-integrity standards. My friend’s sentiment also illustrates how the negative impacts of the Honor Code are so substantial and invasive that they’re sufficient grounds for not attending the University.  

That is, needless to say, regrettable.  

Yet surprisingly, as we have passed the one-year anniversary of our generally unsuccessful attempt to reform the Honor Code for in-class exams, there’s actually some good news on this front. 

At a Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) meeting in December, Dean of the College Jill Dolan announced, according to The Daily Princetonian, “that the Academic Integrity Reconciliation Committee is looking into an expanded array of possible penalties for infractions [for at once in-class and out-of-class assignments]. Both a one-semester suspension and the possibility of a ‘reprimand’ are under consideration.”

This is surely a step in the right direction, and I applaud the University for finally taking Honor Code reform seriously.  

As I, and many others, have argued in the past, the penalties for violating the Honor Code are, as they stand now, abominably un-nuanced and excessively punitive: with a few exceptions, the standard penalty for first-time Honor Code infractions continues to be a one-year suspension, and the standard penalty for a second infraction is expulsion. These punishments have had long-term, soul-deadening, dream-crushing impacts on Princetonians, especially for low-income students, students of color, and international students.

Accordingly, perhaps the most tragic impact of the Honor Code is the paranoia and debilitating stress it all too often inflicts upon students at the University.

While the University has begun to genuinely address the epidemic of mental illness at Princeton, it has failed to acknowledge how retaining the current disciplinary framework of the Honor Code profoundly undercuts well-intentioned efforts to promote emotional well-being; fear of violating the Honor Code substantially increases students’ psychological torment.  

Instead of recognizing original scholarship as a wholly positive, prideful aspect of the University experience, many of us are too busy panicking that every time we submit a test or a paper or a COS project or a problem set, our statuses at the University and future livelihoods are on the line. 

And let us not forget that suspending a student for a first-time offense and expelling a student for a second violation are completely arbitrary penalties — astoundingly sanctioned without taking into consideration intentionality and severity — that should have been reexamined a long time ago. In fact, there’s a rational argument that students should not be suspended for a year or expelled for cheating no matter the nature of the academic-integrity violation – that, in other words, these penalties are simply too punitive and trade away reason, proportionality, and mercy for excessive deterrence and retributive reprimand.       

Of course, the proposed reforms would, in theory, lessen some of the Honor Code’s more punitive elements. However, the overarching injustice of the Honor Code will remain unless the administration agrees to a substantially less punishment-centric framework for revising it. 

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Many will counter, understandably, that if you generally degrade the punitive severity of the Honor Code, more students will be motivated to cheat. 

But if the principal reason for the Honor Code is deterrence, you have to take “Honor” out of it. It’s cynical to think that University students only adhere to the Honor Code because they fear severe punishment, rather than because they take genuine pride in original scholarship. 

In fact, while this may be impractical, one could logically argue that there should be no punitive framework attached to the Honor Code, since a code of honor definitionally entrusts students to hold themselves morally accountable for their actions.

Arbitrarily enforcing the Honor Code through an inquisitional process undermines the ostensible faith the Code instills in students to act with uncompromising academic integrity, even when students aren’t under surveillance. It’s equivalent to identifying as a believer in God with the stipulation that you retain the ongoing ability to evaluate the non-faith-based, purely scientific evidence for and against God’s existence; in reality, your faith conveniently and self-servingly straddles superficial trust in religion and atheistic cynicism.   

While students should be conscious of abiding by academic-integrity standards, avoiding a vicious punishment shouldn’t be the central motivation for doing so. 

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