In the Undergraduate Student Government elections in December 2017, four referenda to amend the Honor Committee Constitution passed by a three-fourths majority. The referenda called for a range of reforms including increased transparency and reduced penalties. However, a few days later, the University announced that it would not permit the implementation of three of the four referenda because they were “too significant to be implemented without faculty approval.”
More than five years later, the ‘Prince’ reviewed annual reports and interviewed current and former chairs of the Honor Committee to hear their view about how their processes have changed since the rejected referenda. Honor Committee chairs note that many aspects of the proposed reforms were implemented following University administration’s approval and there have been other improvements to the process.
However, Honor Committee members also noted that the scope of the scale of the student-led Honor Committee pales in comparison to the student-faculty Committee on Discipline (COD). While the 2017 referendum drove the focus of reform to the Honor Committee, the COD handles the majority of disciplinary cases, including significantly more academic disciplinary cases.
The committee on campus
Recent surveys have shown that the student body is deeply distrustful of the Honor Code.
For the second year in a row, The Daily Princetonian’s senior survey found that the Honor Code is extremely unpopular among students. This year’s survey revealed that 62 percent of respondents have a “strongly” or “somewhat unfavorable” view whereas only 16 percent have a “strongly” or “somewhat favorable” view. In 2022, those numbers were 55 percent and 23 percent, respectively.
These numbers may, in part, have been fueled by a ‘Prince’ investigation in 2021 which chronicled “a story of spiraling mental health, institutionalized alienation, and renewed hopes for reform.” There have been multiple criticisms of the Honor Committee in the ‘Prince’s pages: in 2022, Benjamin Gelman ’23 called on students not to join the Honor Committee.
In the most recent Senior Survey, results found that most students do not feel optimistic about the trajectory of the Honor Committee with the vast majority of students saying there has been no improvement during their time at the University. The most recent substantial changes to the Honor Code were made three months prior to their matriculation.
Recent changes to the Honor Committee
“What I hope people will take away is that a number of the important reforms, like the standard penalty and whatnot, did wind up getting changed and have had a significant impact on the way the Committee does its deliberations,” said former Honor Committee chair Dylan Shapiro ’23.
The referenda introduced in 2017 had four parts: reduce the “standard penalty” to a one-semester suspension from a year-long suspension, require an additional piece of evidence outside of a report in order for a case to proceed to trial, prohibit students from getting in trouble from an Honor Code violation if their professor said it was allowed, and more clearly inform students of their role in a hearing when they are being informed.
The University initially rejected the first three, accepting the plank that witnesses to a hearing should not receive an email identical to the ones received by a student suspected.
Yet after a University process, the first and second proposals are now Honor Committee policy, along with other changes.
Dina Kuttab ’21, who led the Honor Committee as the reforms unfolded, recalled what followed the referendum..
“When those [2017 amendments] didn't go into effect, the administration put together a committee of students and faculty to say, okay, those reforms didn’t go into effect, but what can we do like what reforms can we implement that? Keep the spirit of like the student led reforms, while also like, being something that you can actually operationalize? And that works within the system,” Kuttab said
It ended up being a two-year process involving four report-producing committees, some of which were entirely faculty and some of which involved students, culminating with a Reconciliation Committee to finalize what changes to implement.
Since the release of the report, the Honor Committee has changed in significant ways. Prior to 2019, the standard penalty that the Honor Committee imposed on almost every student found responsible for a serious act of plagiarism was a one-year suspension. Now, that suspension is reduced to one semester.
At the same time, multiple Honor Committee chairs who spoke with the ‘Prince’ referenced that the University does not typically allow students to graduate in the winter. Therefore, when a student is suspended for one semester, they often need to take off an additional semester as a leave of absence. Current Honor Committee Chair Matthew Wilson ’24 highlighted this gap as a problem that should be sorted out.
According to Shapiro, the Committee has also adapted to the referenda and become more lenient in its sentences and now is permitted to use more discretion to ensure that its punishments reflect the details of the case. In order to ensure fairness, Shapiro said, the Committee has begun using a precedent system, citing past cases to when considering future punishments.
Another significant change to the Committee that was recommended by multiple reports is the elimination of character witnesses. Character witnesses would testify to the good character of the accused student before the change. The reasoning behind the change, according to Shapiro, is that the Committee assumes good character, rendering the witness redundant and a requirement that unnecessarily requires the accused to bring another person into their disciplinary process. The committee, as the referendum suggests, also no longer holds a hearing on a single report.
The only referendum policy that was not officially implemented in any form is that if the professor of the class where the incident takes place doesn’t want disciplinary action, there should be no action. While former chairs stated that this policy was not legally feasible, Shapiro told the ‘Prince’ that in practice, “[the Committee] would certainly take into consideration” the faculty member’s perspective when adjudicating a case.
An eclipsed role
Most students view the Honor Committee as a stand-in for the University’s disciplinary process at large: the Honor Committee, which dominates campus conversation around discipline and is a feature of freshman orientation. Before enrolling in classes at the University, students must sign the honor pledge.
However, the scope of the Honor Committee pales in comparison to the COD, which is not student led.
The members of the Honor Committee who spoke to the ‘Prince’ repeatedly emphasized that the administration and faculty have far more power than students in the disciplinary process, both through the COD and their veto power on any action taken by the Honor Committee.
In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ former chair of the Honor Committee Alston Carson ’22 said, “Obviously, it’s student run, I was literally the head of it, but I would say that for anyone who’s not on the committee, it would be really surprising to find out how much control is not actually possessed by the students.”
All cases of cheating during in-person examinations are under the purview of the Honor Committee, but every other violation of the Honor Code — essays, term papers, laboratory reports, and take-home examinations — in addition to non-academic violations of Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities, falls under the jurisdiction of the COD, which is comprised of 17 individuals, six of whom are students. On the other hand, the Honor Committee is entirely students.
“It’s an important talking point for the school that there’s a student-led honor committee, but what’s not really fully understood is that the Committee on Discipline, which is faculty led, has significantly more cases than the Honor Committee,” Carson continued.
In the 2021–2022 school year, the COD found 1,023 students responsible for disciplinary infractions, 50 of which were related to academics. The Honor Committee, which only releases statistics in five-year aggregates, found an average of 14 people responsible for violations of the Honor Code every year between 2017 and 2022. Throughout this time period, the Honor Committee only found the student responsible in 18 percent of cases referred to them. Of students whose cases made it to a hearing before the Honor Committee, 52 percent were found responsible.
There have been some changes to the COD. Most recently, peer representatives, who could assist students in Honor Code cases, can now assist students in COD cases. Yet compared to the referendum, the focus on the COD has not been equal.
“If the Honor Committee didn’t exist, that means all of the Honor Committees’ current cases would fall under the jurisdiction of the Committee on Discipline,” Wilson told the ‘Prince’
“The Committee on Discipline,” Wilson noted, “seems to get very little attention compared to the Honor Committee.”
Julian Hartman-Sigall is an assistant News editor for the ‘Prince.’
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