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Don’t join the Honor Committee

<h5>1879 Hall and the lawn in front of Frist Campus Center.</h5>
<h6>Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
1879 Hall and the lawn in front of Frist Campus Center.
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the authors views alone. For information on how to submit to the Opinion Section, click here.

As each new semester starts, all of our inboxes are flooded with solicitations to join new clubs. However, one option that always seems to stick out among the dance groups, pre-professional organizations, and volunteer opportunities: joining the Honor Committee and the Committee on Discipline (COD). Students should not be fooled; joining either Committee means participating in the investigation and punishment of one’s peers without due process — and we should simply stop doing so. 

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Last year’s Senior Survey (though not a random sample) showed that only 23.4 percent of seniors view the Honor Code favorably, and it's not hard to understand why. An investigation by The Daily Princetonian last term laid out in shocking detail the excesses of the system. According to sociology professor Patricia Fernández-Kelly, the University’s criteria and standards “would be laughed out of the court of law in the United States of America.” Honor Committee hearings are distressing, traumatizing events for any student involved, no matter how blameless.

There isn’t enough space here to go into all the malicious practices inherent in the Honor Committee and Committee on Discipline, but one of the most troubling details includes the fact that students who are on financial aid and found guilty of Honor Code and COD infractions are not eligible for grants for the semester they must repeat. This means that our classmates on the Honor Committee choose not only to derail their peers’ academic trajectories but also potentially their financial well-being.

Apologists for the Honor Committee hang on to the possibility of reform from the inside or harm mitigation. There is no greater evidence of this than when the former head of the Honor Committee told the ‘Prince’ that: “When we thought it would be accepted by the University, we tried our best to err on the side of disciplinary probation. But when we thought that it would not be accepted by the University, we assigned a one-semester suspension.” 

The notion of “mitigation” is nefarious. It allows for the Committee to justify its harsh penalties, simply by claiming that the punishment would have been more severe if they had been overruled by the administration, and therefore students should just be grateful. If Committee members truly had the sympathy for their fellow students that they claim to have, they would recognize this process as illegitimate, overly punitive, and unfair, and challenge the University to overrule them more often. 

What would happen if the Honor Committee simply refused to recommend suspensions and expulsions? Would we see a wave of University overrulings of their verdicts? I’d welcome that outcome, if only because it would reveal this system for what it is: a top-down effort from the University to instill an atmosphere of distrust among students. A wave of overrulings might also put an end to the ridiculous idea that students are policing themselves because of their deep commitment to the Honor Code, rather than anxiety and fear. Perhaps then we could have an honest conversation about why the University seems to believe that the Honor Code creates a healthy environment for students, despite their endless claims to care about our mental health.

Sadly, this vision where the Honor Committee dares the University to overrule it will never come to be. Honor Committee members are not elected or accountable to students. Instead, they’re nominated, and no one with radical new ideas would ever get past the University-sanctioned screening process. The only meaningful way to stop the Honor Committee from legitimizing the administration’s decisions is to deny it student members. 

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It’s time for us to have a conversation about what kind of disciplinary system, if any, ought to replace the Honor Code and Committee on Discipline. However, in the meantime, students ought to stop collaborating. Instead of buying Committee members’ specious argument that they are somehow staving off something more severe, or joining as a way to gain some kind of law school resume builder, we should exercise solidarity with one another and refuse to participate.

Ben Gelman is a senior from Houston, Texas concentrating in Politics. He can be reached at bgelman@princeton.edu. 

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