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Reactions: The Honor Committee gauntlet

<p>Seats in McCosh 50, one of the largest lecture halls at the University.</p>
<h6>Photo Credit: Lazarena Lazarova / The Daily Princetonian</h6>

Seats in McCosh 50, one of the largest lecture halls at the University.

Photo Credit: Lazarena Lazarova / The Daily Princetonian

Last week, the ‘Prince’ news section released a detailed article tracing eight students who faced accusations of violating the Honor Code. Big questions were raised. Does the Honor Code disproportionately impact first generation and low-income students? Are the punishments too draconian?  Is the process itself too intense? Were measures taken during the pandemic appropriate?

We asked ‘Prince’ columnists and community members for their Reactions to these new revelations about the Honor Committee.

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The Honor Committee’s punishments don’t fit the crime

By Abigail Rabieh, Contributing Columnist

I was shocked to learn that students found guilty of an Honor Code violation “can expect to be suspended from the University for one, two, or three years.” This severe form of punishment — described by Professor Fernández-Kelly in the recent ‘Prince’ article as akin to banishment — strikes me as a massive, useless overreaction. 

Why do we punish people? One answer, unquestionably, is to deter others from committing the same crime. Another answer is that sometimes we aim to remedy the harm done. But perhaps the most important reason is to rehabilitate the offender. Punishment should not be only about taking punitive measures; justice is also about helping people who have made a mistake. 

If it’s true that students who violate the honor code are often regarded as “cry[ing] for help” and not acting with malice, as Counseling and Psychological Services Director Calvin Chin noted, what does anyone gain from expelling a student from campus for a year or more? There are no victims in these offenses, save the offenders themselves. I fail to see how this punishment fits the crime, and students who have been subject to this punishment seem to agree. 

The way I see it, the fear of getting a zero in a class would be more than enough to deter most Princtonians from violating the honor code. That punishment feels fair.

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Removing students from campus only increases their anxiety surrounding grades and assignments upon their return, the very feelings that lead them to violate the honor code in the first place. We must look for a better way to help those who feel desperate enough to violate academic integrity and make this whole process helpful instead of terrifying. There’s no reason for it to be this way. 

Abigail Rabieh is a first-year from Cambridge, MA. She can be reached at ar5732@princeton.edu

Should students or Princeton be on trial?

By Braden Flax, Senior Columnist

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When we were all separated into isolated areas for virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, compassion, and understanding were all the rage. We were described, and described each other, as exceptional for being able to get anything done at all. In other words, surviving and being vaguely alright were rhetorically treated as going above and beyond. And those of us who decided to use this as an opportunity to actually improve ourselves, that was downright incredible. 

Yet now, through this investigation, we find out that those who failed to be exceptional were mistreated, bullied, abused, and introduced to paralyzing stigma. Why should we be proud of this? Is Princeton? 

After this investigation, does the administration really think professors are going to keep reporting students even when they technically should by the letter of the law? I hope not.

We, the students, tried to go through channels approved by the University, but were disregarded. We should keep this in mind when we consider if students are in charge of our own discipline, or if an administration that pretends to delegate power is actually just trying to pass off the responsibility while keeping the authority. 

My final appeal is this. When contemplating whom to call when you are struggling and really need a trusted friend, is academic integrity of the narrow Princeton sort ever what you consider first, if at all? Are momentary lapses of judgment, most of which do no concrete harm, really the metrics we want to use to assess the character of the people around us? Trustworthiness of the academic variety is not correlated to trustworthiness in more deeply consequential matters. I challenge you to find any correlation between cheating on a test, and unwillingness to actually go out of your way for another human being when it really counts. I’ll wait. 

Braden Flax is a senior from Merrick, N.Y. He can be reached at bflax@princeton.edu.  

We’re committed to doing better

By Matthew Wilson, Guest Contributor

The Daily Princetonian’s recent feature profiling students accused of Honor Code violations was disturbing and disheartening to read. As an Honor committee member myself, I’m deeply saddened by reports that students have faced academic, personal, and mental health struggles as a result of their experiences with the Honor Committee.

It’s entirely possible that, as the students interviewed in the piece suggest, the Honor System puts first-generation, low-income (FLI) students at a disadvantage in the disciplinary process. While a finding of responsibility for an alleged Honor Code violation would never be influenced by factors such as income level, personal background, or athlete status, I would wholeheartedly support measures to rectify unfairness or inconsistencies in penalty implementation ― particularly when it comes to financial aid extensions for suspended students required to repeat a semester.

The Honor Committee exists so that students have the opportunity to have alleged Honor Code violations adjudicated by their peers, rather than having their culpability summarily decided by professors or administrators. An entirely student-run Honor System guarantees that the student perspective is centered during investigations and hearings ― so that the accused have their cases heard by individuals who understand the everyday stresses and hardships that accompany being a student at Princeton, since they experience those same struggles themselves.

Every case that comes before us is extremely difficult. We’re committed to doing whatever it takes to ensure that the Honor Committee treats all accused students, regardless of background, with the same sense of equality, dignity, justice, and compassion.

Matthew Wilson is a sophomore from Ashburn, Virginia and a member of the Honor Committee. He can be reached at mxwilson@princeton.edu.

Do we need an Honor Committee?

By Rohit Narayanan, Columnist

The most disheartening revelation of the recent exposé was that the Honor Committee process takes students who were passionate about academics and replaces that passion with a dull fear of punishment. I’ve heard students say that fear of being Honor Coded was a major reason they never took a math or CS class. I can’t think of anything more antithetical to Princeton’s mission. But it’s the inevitable result of a process based not on values but fear. Legitimate questions must be asked on whether we should even have an Honor Committee with such a mandate.

A substantial proportion of the cases that come before the Honor Committee and Committee on Discipline are for minor academic violations — some of which aren’t even bad. Of the 38 cases the Honor Committee heard between 2015 and 2019, 17 of them were for writing overtime or using course notes, a calculator or a cheat sheet during an exam (probably many due to honest mistakes).  The Committee on Discipline suggests many of the cases it hears are for the use of outside sources without proper acknowledgement -- improper collaboration or miscitation, typically. 

Making citation errors on essays? Teach students, don’t punish them. Collaborating on problem sets? Collaboration is an important life skill, and professors shouldn’t write questions that can be defeated merely by asking classmates or searching Google. Writing 30 seconds over time on exams? Students should have time to finish their thoughts (time crunch exams aren’t useful anyway). 

If a student brings an improper resource to an exam, should it be confiscated or should we have a hearing about it after the fact? For cases during the pandemic, it strains credulity to suggest we should care how people were taking tests while the world was shut down. Are any of these violations worth the stress of a hearing, let alone suspension?

Things we worry about more are rare and pretty easy to fix. If we’re worried about cheating on in-class exams, why are they unproctored? And do we really think students are copying whole papers off the Internet? Wouldn’t that be relatively easy to find out?

To top it off, the Honor Committee is largely ineffective. A ‘Prince’ survey in 2009 found that only 4 out of 85 students who’d witnessed cheating actually reported it. It’s no wonder the entire concept of the investigation seems to be asking students: “Isn’t this coincidence just a bit too suspicious?”

We just tend to assume that cheating is a real dragon to be slain. Nothing about the Honor Committee’s current operation suggests that its value outweighs its harm.

Rohit Narayanan is a sophomore electrical and computer engineering major from McLean, VA. He can be reached at rohitan@princeton.edu.

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