Vote No on Referenda 1, 2 and 3; Vote Yes on Referendum 4

During this semester’s USG elections – which will be held from Tuesday, December 12 to Thursday, December 14 – undergraduates at the University will have the opportunity to vote on four referendum questions, all of which have been put forth by the USG Subcommittee on the Honor System. Each of these changes to the Honor Code would have a noticeable impact on Princeton’s Honor Constitution. If 3/4s of voters vote in favor of a referendum, this would be a binding vote, and the Honor Constitution would be formally amended. As such, the student body has a responsibility to carefully analyze these referendums and think critically about their implications. The Board urges students to oppose referenda 1, 2, and 3 and to support referendum 4, for reasons explained below.  

Referendum 1

The Board urges students to oppose this measure. This referendum will shift the standard penalty for violating the Honor Code from a one-year suspension to disciplinary probation, moving the one-year suspension to the punishment for a second violation. The purpose of penalizing violations of the Honor Code is twofold: to punish violations and deter future ones. As we wrote last year,  academic integrity is of considerable importance to Princeton’s community, particularly because of the University’s unique emphasis on undergraduate independent work. A one-year suspension for a violation is appropriately strict to punish violations of trust in our academic community. The same can hardly be said of disciplinary probation, which is so light a punishment that it essentially gives every student a one-time pass to cheat at Princeton. Furthermore, the proposed lower standard penalty is simply not a great enough deterrent to prevent violations. Disciplinary probation is a penalty where a student may be willing to risk an infraction during a major exam because it has little to no long-term consequences. If the student is not caught, this may quickly perpetuate itself into a much greater issue, wherein the student becomes a repeat offender because this individual knows the much lower severity of a disciplinary probation compared to a one-year suspension for a first-time violation. Accordingly we urge the student body to vote “no” on Referendum 1.

Referendum 2

The Board urges students to oppose this measure. This referendum constitutes that a case must have two pieces of evidence to bring a hearing, with each indicating that a violation has occurred. Yet this ignores key instances in which the Honor Committee may be presented with one overwhelmingly convincing piece of evidence that a violation of the Honor Code has occurred. For example, if a student reworks a returned, graded exam and then improperly submits it for a regrade to obtain more points, the Honor Committee would receive one piece of evidence: the copy of the student’s original exam versus the exam he or she submitted for a regrade (instructors often copy graded exams to compare to exams later submitted for a regrade). Another example is if the Honor Committee receives Internet records which indicate that a student accessed a course’s Blackboard site during an exam. In both instances, the Honor Committee has quite compelling evidence that a student violated the Honor Code from just one piece of evidence. The student body must reject Referendum 2 to continue allowing cases such as these to proceed to hearing. Additionally, the wording of this amendment is highly questionable, as it states that the two pieces of evidence each must “indicate that a violation occurred.” The Board contends that such an addition to the Honor Constitution would inherently create a pre-bias judgement against the accused. This will inevitably raise issues following the hearing, as students found responsible could plausibly claim they were unfairly tried due to pre-hearing bias. This further strengthens the case for voting “no” on Referendum 2.

Referendum 3

The Board urges students to oppose this measure. The operative element of this referendum states that if the course instructor explicitly states that the student’s actions were not in violation of the class policy, then that individual will be found not responsible. It is the most flawed of the proposed referendums because it effectively establishes a parallel Honor system separate from the Honor Code in a manner that allows for unfair and inconsistent findings of responsibility. Supporters of Referendum 3 present it in innocuous terms—that the Honor Committee must not find students responsible for an alleged violation that the course instructor made clear was acceptable within his or her course policies. Yet this ignores the troubling possibility that professors might tell the Honor Committee their course policies were different after an exam if an accused student asks the professor to do so. There are a myriad of ways that this could result in unfair and inconsistent outcomes, for example if the student in question has a positive relationship with the professor or if the professor is generally more lenient with regards to Honor violations. Moreover, the Honor Committee decides cases based on fair and consistent precedents, regardless of who the student and the professor are. And because seven members hear each case, the individual biases of one member do not have an outsized impact on the results. By contrast, this referendum would give individual professors veto power over the consistency of the Honor Committee's process.

This is not to say that professors should have no role in the process. Quite the opposite - the Honor Committee already gives weight to the professor's word; it should and does matter. Professors are interviewed as part of every Honor Committee investigation, and they must present evidence to show the student “ought reasonably” to have known the course policy. This also works to help students accused of violations, because professors cannot claim after the fact that they prohibited calculator use, for example, when this was never explicitly stated as a policy. This highlights the fairness of the current process, and the student body must reject Referendum 3 in order to preserve the fair, equal, and consistent application of Princeton’s Honor Code.

Referendum 4

The Board urges students to support this measure. The referendum constitutes that investigators must inform students of their status as a student in question or witness when “making initial contact” with them, rather than waiting until just before questioning. There is value for students being called as possible witnesses and students who have been accused to know their status before meeting with the investigators. For possible witnesses, they will no longer have to experience the stress of worrying they have been accused of a violation before meeting with the Honor Committee. For students who have been accused, it is far more fair to give them the opportunity to think about how they would defend themselves, no matter the point in the investigation, rather than blindsiding them with an accusation when they reach the Honor Committee’s office.

The counterargument to supporting Referendum 4 is that students who have been accused could somehow destroy evidence or come up with a story in advance of their initial meeting with the Committee. We do not agree with this argument on face because we think it is only fair for students to know their status prior to meeting with an investigator. We are also not concerned about its practical effects. If someone has cheated, they would know if they did so. And if they received a call from the Honor Committee asking them to meet, it is likely they would destroy any evidence or get their story straight in advance of meeting regardless of if they were officially told they had been accused or not. We thus do not see any practical harms to Referendum 4 and only see benefits in reducing the stressfulness and raising the fairness of students’ dealings with the Committee.

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To conclude, it is of unequivocal importance that students consider the referendums at hand with utmost seriousness. They are to amend the governing Constitution of the Honor system, one of the most substantial aspects of the University’s academic foundation. The Board, therefore, strongly urges students to be sure to have their voices heard during this semester’s USG elections, by casting their vote between Tuesday, December 12 and Thursday, December 14. We urge “no” votes on Referenda 1, 2, and 3 and “yes” votes on Referendum 4.

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

Jack Whelan ‘19 abstained from the writing of this editorial with respect to referenda 2 and 3.

Dissent, in part

While we support the majority’s stance in support of Referendum 4 and in opposition to Referendum 2, we respectfully disagree with its opposition to Referenda 1 and 3.

With regard to Referendum 1, the majority overlooks that the new standard penalty would include “a recommendation to fail the examination on which the violation occurred” in addition to the academic probation they discuss. Given that examinations generally count for very significant portions of course grades, this hardly represents a “one-time pass to cheat” with “little to no long term impacts” that the majority describes because students will still likely incur a large penalty to their class grade which will always be present in their GPA. In a departmental class, a student may also fail to receive sufficient credit for the course to count, even if the penalty does not result in a failing grade. For a student so concerned about grades that they would consider cheating for a finite portion of points on the exam, this represents a large but fair deterrent from cheating.

The current penalty of a one-year suspension must be improved upon, particularly given its disparate effects on students of different backgrounds; a student from a well-connected family could obtain a prestigious internship during their time off and actually be helped by their suspension. Other wealthy students also have the option of taking an unpaid internship while their family supports them, something that can either help the student or help mitigate the effects of suspension long-term. On the other hand, a student from a less-connected, low income family could have to work a job in an industry that is not relevant to their degree in order to support themselves without the University's financial and thus is punished disproportionately more than their better connected/wealthier peers. Because of this, it makes sense for the University to move away from the one-year suspension and adopt the policy specified in Referendum 1.

With regard to Referendum 3, we argue that a professor for a given course in every circumstance understands the context of an academic violation better than the Honor Committee could without being in the class. Even if the professor is interviewed by the Honor Committee, there is no way for the Committee to have knowledge of every course policy/informal practice that could influence the professor believing a student to be innocent. While the majority is largely preoccupied by wrong-doers not being punished, the dissent is more concerned about innocent students being wrongly punished. It is a greater harm to the community as a whole to have innocent students convicted than for guilty students to occasionally slip through, as it creates a culture of fear and resentment towards the Honor Code, which is actually contrary to the community placing a high value on academic honor and integrity that the majority describes. Given Referendum 3 helps to mitigate some of these current deficiencies, the dissent supports this measure.

For these reasons, we respectfully dissent and urge the student body to vote “yes” on Referenda 1 and 3.

Signed,

Megan Armstrong ‘19
Rachel Glenn ’19