Considerations for USG’s Subcommittee on the Honor Constitution

The Honor Code and the body that enforces it, the Honor Committee play important roles in the lives of Princeton students. As such, they should be responsive to the opinion of the student body, and students should themselves take an interest in a unique Princeton tradition that affects them all. Prompted by the establishment of a USG subcommittee on the Honor Constitution, the Board commends this proactive engagement with important issues surrounding the Committee and proposes possible areas of investigation and change to the status quo to the Committee. We urge the subcommittee to examine the following issues but do not take a stance on specific policy prescriptions herein.

We have previously endorsed affirming the standard penalty for violation of the Honor Code -- a one-year suspension. Nevertheless, this remains a contentious issue among the student body, and certainly one that has the potential to gravely impact students. As we previously wrote, it could be argued that such a harsh deterrent is appropriate both practically, to discourage such dishonesty, and to uphold the high standards and values of the University. Further, it puts weight behind the premium placed on honor, and emphasizes this commitment. Nonetheless,the automatic one-year suspension is more severe than corresponding punishments at peer institutions. At those schools, an automatic failing grade in the class is arguably a sufficient deterrent and does not pose the various disproportionate downsides as a suspension.A suspension can complicate the timeline of a student’s college career, jeopardize job opportunities, and endanger relationships. All these outcomes can further negatively impact a student’s mental health, and separate students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, from adequate care.

Next, we urge the Subcommittee to examine the current practice of having investigators and adjudicators drawn from the same pool of students on the Honor Committee. There are currently 15 members of the Honor Committee. When the Committee receives a report of a suspected violation, the Chair will assign 2 members to investigate the allegation. If the case proceeds to a hearing, the Chair will appoint 6 other members to take part in the hearing, deliberate about the evidence presented, and then vote to find the student responsible or not. While members do not serve both roles in a single case, their experience in both could bias the judicial process towards guilt. Having previously investigated cases, they might be subconsciously predisposed to believe the investigator, with whom they work and whose methods and practices they understand and trust. One possible solution to this concern, which would produce fairer outcomes, would be to delegate investigative functions to a separate group of students who do not sit on the Honor Committee, whose members would solely hear cases. This would create three bodies of students involved in the honor process: student investigators, student adjudicators, and peer representatives, helping ensure that the judicial body could decide cases without bias.

Third, the asymmetry between the composition of the Committee on Discipline--which handles all other disciplinary offenses except for sexual misconduct cases, such as plagiarism and drug possession--and the Honor Committee should be reviewed. The Committee on Discipline is composed of both students and faculty, whereas only students comprise the Honor Committee. The status quo is defended by pointing to the unique, student-only nature of the Honor Code itself. The distinctive ethos of Princeton’s Honor Code depends on professors being absent during all processes related to the Honor Code, from the exam itself to investigation of violations to adjudication. Additionally, all members of the Honor Committee are on equal footing during deliberations; there is no added weight given to what a professor might say about a case.

On the other hand, having professors on the Honor Committee would mitigate possible abuses of power. While we commend those students serving on the Committee for their effort and dedication, there is a common perception among students that the Committee sometimes acts capriciously. Such evidence is obviously anecdotal by its nature, but the appearance of fairness is important by itself, whether or not actual issues of fairness arise. Professors would be less likely to know the student accused, and would not know him or her as a peer, making it easier to render an impartial decision. They would also, by virtue of their career and experience, likely be more used to positions of power, increasing professionalism and procedural decorum.

Lastly, the transparency of the Honor Committee should be reviewed. The Board recognizes that some level of obscurity is necessary to maintain anonymity of the accused and to protect privacy. However, students’ confidence in the procedures and outcomes of the Honor Committee and, ultimately, the Honor Code, depend on understanding what occurs. In this instance too, the Committee on Discipline offers a possible model. They release an annual report detailing the general type of offenses committed, and the number of students found guilty of each offense. The Honor Committee could follow this example by providing general information, such as the number of students accused of and found responsible for various offenses, like using a cellphone during an exam or tampering with a graded exam and then submitting it for a regrade. Such information could give valuable context to the student body as a whole, increasing institutional trust, without compromising student privacy.

The Subcommittee’s review of the Honor Constitution provides a valuable opportunity to re-examine the procedures and practices of a body that is of great importance to all students, whether or not they are ever called before it. We urge the subcommittee to carefully consider both sides of the issues outlined above, with the ultimate goal of allowing the Honor Code and Committee to better serve all students.

Carolyn Liziewski ‘18 recused herself from the writing of this editorial.