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A Call for Increased Transparency and Responsiveness from USG and Administrators

Yesterday, the Undergraduate Student Government announced that all four referenda to amend Princeton’s Honor Constitution had passed by wide margins. The election saw unprecedented turnout, with 64% of the student body voting on the referenda. This high turnout was likely driven in part by the binding nature of the referenda; amendments will now immediately be made to the Honor Constitution. This is unique in contrast with the typical USG referendum that is unbinding and generally constitutes calling for USG to investigate a matter, rather than to make immediate changes. Given this, the Board would like to offer a timely suggestion to USG and administrators concerning the procedure of typical Princeton referenda and reform.

We praise USG for frequently appealing to the student body to gauge the school’s stance on pivotal issues, but we are critical of the lethargy with which school legislators approach the implementation of referendum-approved policies. As such, the Board advocates increased transparency in the months following referenda and school reform surveys so that the student body knows the state of the proposed changes. While we acknowledge the need to coordinate with administrative and faculty partners can slow down USG’s response, the student body should still be updated on the progress of the reforms they approve. The Winter 2016 eating club demographic collection referendum and the March 2016 calendar reform survey are particularly illustrative of this troubling lack of transparency, while the Spring 2016 prison divestment referendum highlights the downsides of not being responsive to student expressions of opinion.

In the winter of 2016, the student body voted on a referendum calling upon USG to work with the Interclub Council to have eating clubs collect and release demographic information like race, gender, and academic major about its members and bickerees. The referendum passed overwhelmingly, with nearly 70% support. But a year later the motion seems to have fully dissolved; two, nearly three, rounds of bicker and sign-in have come and gone. While a committee has been appointed to consider the eating clubs, this committee will expressly not deal with the collection of eating club demographics. The student body at large has heard little about USG’s progress on this matter since last December. As Leila Clark, the referendum’s sponsor, explained in a October 2017 Prince op-ed, USG initially voiced their support for the referendum’s suggestion, but then grew frustratingly elusive in the months that followed.

In March 2016, USG partnered with the Dean of the College, the Dean of the Graduate School, and the Graduate School Government to administer a student survey regarding proposed calendar reform which would move fall finals to before winter recess. A staggering 72% of 2,580 votes supported the reform, finding that looming exams added stress to their holiday breaks. Following this, in October 2016, a University Task Force on General Education released six recommendations, including one that would move finals to before winter recess. While an Ad Hoc Committee on Calendar Reform has been working since May 2017 to implement the calendar change, the student body remains woefully uninformed about what progress has been made. The only subsequent public discussion of the Committee’s work has been one report it made to USG in November. While The Daily Princetonian reported on this update, progress on change of such great interest to the student body should be reported directly and regularly to students.

Given the opaque response to past referenda, the Princeton student body has lost some of its enthusiasm for supporting reforms to its community. In the spring of 2016, for example, the student body voted on a referendum to divest from private prisons and detention corporations, which profit from incarceration and immigrant-deportation. The referendum enjoyed a overwhelming majority: 89%. But still the referendum did not pass, because only a small proportion of the student body came out to vote on it – more than the 30% of the student body that must vote on a referendum for the vote to count. Should we be surprised by the low turnout? Probably not: most referenda have no inherent power. They are simply gauges of student opinion; the power falls entirely to USG and the University administration to decide whether to act on that opinion. In theory, this is a reasonable, even necessary procedure for implementing reform. Ideally, our student and faculty leaders would approach the proposed reforms with energy and transparency, making steady progress and keeping us informed on the state of the referendums.

But as experience has shown, USG and the University administration can be slow-moving and elusive when it comes to implementing pivotal reforms that enjoy overwhelming support from the student body. What is at stake here is not individual reforms and stances on them—indeed, it is worth noting that while the Board supported the winter break calendar reform, it did not support the eating club demographic referendum—but rather the very mechanisms by which we effect change at this school. If the reforms students are collectively excited about continue to disappear in the bowels of USG and administrative bureaucracy, rarely to be discussed again, then students will become less and less engaged with school reform. As the prison divestment referendum highlighted, this will be a fatal blow to our voice as a student body. The Board, therefore, calls on USG and the University administration to be transparent and aboveboard about their progress on all reforms proven, by survey or referendum, to enjoy the popular support of the school. This means periodic updates, published benchmarks, and candid notification when reforms seem unlikely to be implemented. The Board understands that not all student-approved reforms can feasibly be implemented in practice, but the student body still deserves to be updated on any attempts, even if unsuccessful, to do so.

We accordingly cannot emphasize enough the importance of USG and administrative responsiveness to student-approved reforms, as well as transparency about the status of their response.

Rachel Glenn ‘19 and Carolyn Liziewski ‘18 recused themselves from the writing of this editorial.

Yee for President

Voting for the Undergraduate Student Government’s Winter Elections will be held between Tuesday the 12th and Thursday the 14th. Following in the tradition of the former Daily Princetonian Editorial Board, the Princeton Editorial Board has interviewed the three candidates running for USG President this year: Matt Miller ’19, Ryan Ozminkowski ’19, and Rachel Yee ’19. After carefully considering their platforms and experiences, we are endorsing Yee, with Miller as our second choice candidate. Should no candidate win a majority of the votes cast in this week’s election, a runoff election will take place from Saturday the 16th through Monday the 18th at the start of winter break.  As such, we encourage all students to have an opinion on their first and second choices for President and to be sure to vote in the runoff election should one be necessary. In making our decision to endorse Yee for President, we considered the candidates’ plans, their past experience, and their ability to represent the entire student body while effectively implementing the goals of their platform. We believe that Yee has the most promise in each of these key areas.

This is the second year that Rachel Yee is running for USG President, and the second year that the Board has endorsed her for President. Her platform reflects issues that are important at this moment on campus and impact students greatly. Yee’s platform is in large part focused on mental health. We believe her emphasis on mental health is appropriate and necessary given mental health’s importance in student life on campus. Her platform is also impressively detailed and focused in this area. Yee offers innovative solutions, proposing adding satellite CPS offices (with additional CPS staff) in residential colleges, as well as office hours for CPS in the LGBT Center, Carl A. Fields Center, Davis International Center, Jadwin, and E-Quad. Yee proposed these ideas in her previous campaign and has carried over her focus on mental health throughout the past year. Since last year’s election, she has furthered her commitment to this area, for example serving as Princeton’s Head Delegate to the Ivy Mental Health Conference and coordinating a Summer Soiree Benefit for Mental Health. Yee’s continued focus on and dedication to this matter reflect both the seriousness of the issue and the persistence of problems regarding mental health on campus. We believe Yee offers the best platform to address this pressing concern.

In addition, Yee has offered ideas and plans to revamp USG’s communications, improve freshman advising, implement a midterm feedback system for professors, establish a loan-free textbook program, better train new USG members, and improve the housing and living situation for independent students. These are good ideas that the Board would also like to see implemented on campus during a Yee presidency.

Yee moreover has the operational know-how to get the job done. In choosing a candidate for USG President, it is important to consider not only the quality of the candidate’s platform but also the candidate’s ability to accomplish the goals of his or her platform. Yee’s platform details the specific University offices with which she plans to work to accomplish her goals. She correctly does not view USG as a body that acts alone and understands the necessity of leveraging personal relationships with University staff and administrators to make changes on behalf of the student body. We are particularly impressed by the thorough “Monthly Breakdown” Yee created for the Game Plan section of her website, which details the careful thinking she has done to prepare herself for serving as USG President. This demonstrates that Yee understands the role of USG President and the time commitment necessary to do a good job for the student body. She is therefore well-positioned to implement the goals on her platform and to effect positive change for the Princeton community.

The Board was also very impressed with Matt Miller, which is why he is our second choice candidate for President. His platform exhibits perhaps the greatest breadth of all three candidates. While platforms that have such breadth often seem unfeasible to implement, Miller’s platform includes very reasonable proposals that we believe he would be able to implement if elected President. He details a plan to have a library or student center open 24 hours, which is a change the student body has often requested. Miller also proposes establishing bus services to airports from Princeton during key travel times before breaks. He would expand on USG’s existing program to offer bus services before Thanksgiving that take students to major cities in the Mid-Atlantic. This is a very popular program, and it would make sense to add airport shuttles as well and to offer this service before more breaks. Miller also advocates expanding the McGraw tutoring program to include daily language class sessions, as well as sessions for other subjects if there is enough student interest. Finally, one of Miller’s main proposals is a detailed one to host better acts for Lawnparties. He believes that selecting up-and-coming artists would improve Lawnparties and generate greater student interest in the event. These are just a few of many ideas on Miller’s platform that are both feasible to implement and would directly improve student life on campus.

In addition, Miller demonstrated that he has the attitude and dedication to represent the student body well. He is is a former student athlete who already has USG experience. Accordingly, we encourage students to consider Miller as their second choice candidate and to vote for him in the runoff election should Yee not advance to the second round of voting.  

We encourage all students to vote online in the many races and referenda starting tomorrow. We endorse Rachel Yee for President, with Matt Miller as our second choice.

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.

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

 

Make All Language Classes PDF-able​​​​​​​

Most students, at some point in their undergraduate education, experience both the intellectual joys and challenges of a Princeton language class. Introductory language classes are currently among the few classes that students cannot elect to take on a Pass/D/Fail (PDF) basis. The Board recommends that the University should allow students to PDF all language classes because it would incentivize students to explore new interests and make language classes more appealing to a wider array of students.

The primary purpose of PDF-able classes, as defined in Princeton’s Academic Regulations, is to allow students to explore a new interest or subject area that they might not otherwise try due to fear of hurting their GPA. Foreign language classes are an area that some students would like to explore but do not feel confident enough in their abilities to take the class for a grade. Because of these concerns and the inability to PDF introductory language courses, students are currently disincentivized from learning something new by taking introductory language classes. The disincentive is even stronger because when starting at an introductory level, students need to take two semesters of a language in order to obtain credit for it. For example, if a student received a poor grade in the fall semester and decided not to continue with it in fear of underperforming again, he would not be able to use the class to count towards the required 31 classes to graduate for AB majors. Furthermore, the grade he received for the class would still affect his GPA even if it does not fulfill the foreign language requirement. This is a challenging situation that has no comparison with any other course at Princeton and further underscores how the way introductory language courses work at Princeton disincentivizes students from trying a new language.

The University clearly values foreign languages: in the 2016 Report of the Task Force on General Education, it recommended requiring all A.B. students to take a foreign language class “regardless of any existing proficiency” because it exposes students to different cultures and broadens students’ international scope. While University believes students benefit greatly from the foreign language requirement, many students opt out of it, including engineering students and AB students whose prior language experience fulfills requirement. Yet these students could be incentivized to still take a language course even though they are not required to if they know their GPA would not be affected by the ability to PDF the course. Students needing to take a fifth class who would otherwise not think of taking a non-PDF-able class would now have more options in their class choice. Finally, students who wish to travel, study abroad, or do an international internship that requires some proficiency in a foreign language would be able to take language classes without the potential risk for the sole purpose of gaining an additional skillset. The conversational ability gained from taking one or two semesters of a language is sufficient enough for students to pick up some proficiency.

There is a perception that students who PDF a course are less inclined to actively participate, and that can be detrimental in language classes because they rely on each student to make an effort to contribute. Because classes are small and require the collaboration of all students, if even one person does not participate it can affect the other students’ performance in the class as well. However, in order to even pass in the first place, students must come to class and participate because participation accounts for a large percentage of their grade. This is likely one of the easiest ways to pass the course with minimal effort, which is incentive enough for students PDFing to actively contribute. Moreover, active participation could be made an explicit requirement for a passing grade, thereby ensuring that students taking the course on a PDF basis still contribute to class discussions.

Furthermore, there are currently other classes that can be PDF-ed that also rely heavily on the engagement and cooperation of all students. For example, STL courses with group labs and computer science courses with the option of partner assignments both necessitate collaboration, yet their value does not depreciate because of the students PDFing them. Due to these similar cases, the Board believes that language classes can still function and maintain a good learning environment for all students even if they become PDF-able.

The Board recognizes the value of learning a foreign language and encourages more students to take advantage of the skills gained from learning one. By providing the option to PDF all language classes, more students would be inclined to explore new interests and take language classes that accommodate their needs.

 

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