The Honor Code is an integral part of the Princeton experience. Adopted in 1893, it serves as one of the nation’s oldest honor practices for colleges. Every member of every entering class of the University swears allegiance to this code, and there exists a committee that serves as its custodian. The code itself is contentious enough, necessitating not only a duty to not act dishonestly during examinations, but also to report instances where others do this. In fact, not doing so is considered a violation of the code. While this is an interesting debate in and of itself, this column will focus more on the implementation of the code in its present form — whether or not it is “fair.”
The Honor Committee consists of 12 undergraduate students, two of whom are in charge of investigating whenever there is an allegation levied against an individual. First, the idea of students judging their peers seems to afford a group of students a lot of power over others. Forget residential college advisers, club presidents and sports team captains — these people can get you kicked out of school. The idea that my peers can possibly pronounce me guilty of something as severe as cheating is hard to swallow. There are two possible justifications for this system. One: this mirrors real life, where ordinary citizens sit on juries. The key difference in the two scenarios is that jury duty is revolving, so the same group of people doesn’t judge for all trials, and that they are selected randomly. In the case of the Honor Committee, it is the same people who preside over such matters for a given term.
The second justification for the student-run committee: Students can understand what their peers experience, and hence provide a more emphatic understanding of the act in question. After all, even with juries, the members of society are there to add subjective details into a verdict on a more objective act. This justification, too, is inadequate. The Honor Code, in so many words, excludes extenuating circumstances, no matter how severe their influence, as possible mitigating factors. To quote the Code, “The only adequate defense for a student accused of an academic violation is that the work in question does not, in fact, constitute a violation.” This not only goes off at a tangent to almost every modern justice system, where intent is as, if not more, important than the act committed — which is why murder in the first degree is not the same as murder in the second degree, even though human life is lost at the hands of someone in both cases — but also renders the idea of a student-run committee incredibly redundant. After all, why are students on the committee if they cannot use their experiences to judge their peers in a more subjective manner?
Additionally, the randomness with which jury members are selected is crucial because it avoids bias — negative and positive — in the proceedings. The composition of the Honor Committee is interesting in this regard. It includes four class presidents — two current, two previous — and the USG president. All five of these people, by virtue of their roles and positions, are required to be social. They have had campaigns to ask help for and undoubtedly made many friends — and possibly enemies — in their roles as leaders. It is safe to assume they are more outgoing than most of their peers — again, almost required by their roles — which increases the possibility that they may have to pass a verdict on someone they know, or are at least acquainted with. This takes away some impartiality from the proceedings.
Lastly, the Honor Committee requires a more transparent structure. Part of the reason the committee and the proceedings are mentioned in such hushed tones is because of the personal and serious nature of the acts and their punishments. But there should be, at the very least, more statistics on hearings and their verdicts, and some semblance of accountability for the members of the committee. How can a group with such far-reaching and serious powers be trusted with no structure in place to keep it in check other than the members’ own consciences and senses of right and wrong? If these were enough, why have the Honor Committee in the first place? The committee exists because students, in tough situations, make mistakes. A hearing is a tough situation, and every member is a student. Why doesn’t the same logic apply to them?
The idea of the Honor Code is integral to the academic tradition at a college like ours. But the execution, at least in its current state, makes the whole process, for the sake of irony, dishonorable.
Ali Hayat is a sophomore from Lahore, Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.