Princeton students call for dismantling the student honor code because it “mirrors the criminal justice system”

January 31, 2023 • 10:15 am

Like all universities, Princeton has an Honor Code to reinforce academic integrity by preventing cheating, plagiarism, and other practices that allow students to claim credit for someone else’s work. This code is laid out at an online site that gives not only its stipulations, but the procedure to be followed if a student violates the code, and then the University’s punishments if a student is found guilty. Here’s the essence of Princeton’s code:

Article II. Violations

      1. The Honor Pledge
        1. The Honor Pledge is as follows: “I pledge my honor that I have not violated the Honor Code during this examination.” This must at all times be written in full on the examination paper and signed by the student on the examination. Any undergraduate who fails to write and sign the pledge on the examination paper will be reminded to do so by the instructor. If the instructor or the Committee cannot promptly obtain the written and signed pledge, the student will be reported to the Committee for investigation. Unwillingness to sign the pledge following notification by the instructor or the Committee will be prima facie evidence of a violation of the Honor Code.
      2. Violations
        1. Violations of the Honor Code consist of:
          1. Any attempt to gain an unfair advantage in regard to an examination, both inside and outside the examination room.
          2. Any attempt to give assistance, both inside and outside the examination room, whether the student attempting to give assistance has completed their own work or not.
        2. Specific violations include, but are not limited to:
          1. Tampering with a graded exam;
          2. Claiming another’s work to be one’s own; and
          3. Obtaining or attempting to obtain, previous to any examinations, copies of the examination papers or examination questions, or any illegal knowledge of these questions.
          4. Other actions in violation of the policies set forth by the professor.
      3. Dishonesty
        1. Committing dishonesty, defined as lying to or purposely misleading the Committee, is also a violation of the Honor Code. It will not be considered dishonesty for a student to maintain their own innocence.
      4. Findings of Responsibility
        1. A student will be found responsible if the Committee finds overwhelmingly convincing evidence that the student ought reasonably to have understood that their actions were in violation of the Honor Code.
      5. Reporting Suspected Violations
        1. Every student is obligated to report to the Honor Committee any suspected violation of the Honor Code that they have observed. The Committee will make every attempt to ensure the anonymity of reporting students. Students may make reports by emailing, contacting the chair directly, or any member of the committee.

And there are two committees that adjudicite the various types of cheating that can occur:

All written examinations, tests, and quizzes that take place in class are conducted under the honor system. All violations of the honor system are the concern of the Undergraduate Honor Committee. Violations of rules and regulations pertaining to all other academic work, including essays, term papers, laboratory reports, and take-home examinations fall under the jurisdiction of the Faculty-Student Committee on Discipline.

The process of reporting and then judging violations given at the site seem to me eminently fair to the accused—far fairer than, say, Biden and Obama’s procedure for judging violations of Title IX. But you can read about Princeton’s procedures at the site.

Now, however, an op-ed at the Daily Princetonian, the student newspaper, says that code must be “dismantled”, and for two reasons. First, the Honor Code mirrors the procedures of a criminal justice system that, says author Emilly Santos, disproportionately hurts African-Americans and impecunious Americans.  Second, at Princeton the Code disproportionately affects first-generation low-income students (FLI), “students who often also belong to racial minorities.

The explicit message of Santos’s article is that the Honor Code should be ditched. But she never really follows that up, suggesting at the end just two changes that actually leave most of the code in place. This is deeply confusing.

Santos is identified as “a prospective physics major in the class of 2025, also pursuing certificates in Gender & Sexuality Studies and Portuguese Language & Cultures. 

Click below to read her piece:

The accusation: (“CJS” stands for America’s criminal justice system). Note that she calls for dismantling the code (bolding is mine).

Princeton’s Honor Code, tasked with holding students accountable and honest in academic settings, mirrors the criminal justice system in its rules and effects. It is harmful to the entirety of the Princeton community: the fear it instills in students fosters an environment of academic hostility. But it is often most damaging for first-generation low-income (FLI) students — students who also often belong to racial minorities.

Princeton, as an institution that aims to educate world leaders and brands itself with social justice discourse, must first address the existing parallels between the CJS and these smaller-scale systems we subscribe to. Specifically, we must re-examine the role of the Honor Code and Honor Committee in our community. The University should lead by example by dismantling the Honor Code system, which acts as a barrier to social mobility and a more equitable society. Only once such internal injustices are addressed can we make real-world changes.

. . . The process of reporting and investigating an Honor Code breach parallels the criminal justice system by mimicking processes of questioning, evidence gathering, witness depositions, and an eventual move to trial, or hearing. In the same way a criminal record haunts previous convicts, any Honor Code violation for which a student is found responsible follows them in their transcript, overshadowing the accomplishments of attaining a Princeton degree and making it difficult for students to find employment opportunities.

Pity, pity: Santos apparently wants no permanent record if you are found guilty of cheating. Does she favor abolishing criminal records as well? (Some already get expunged under rare circumstances.)

If you don’t cheat, you needn’t fear. This code no more instills fear in students than the criminal justice system instills fear in law-abiding citizens. And any system that punishes those who cheat will instill fear in those who want to cheat. Of course, students have to know the Code exists to understand what conduct is prohibited, but I’m pretty sure they learn about it during orientation and on syllabi for courses.

Now, Santos’s accusation that the Code causes inequities:

Previous reporting on the Honor Code has shown the negative effects of the Honor Code process on FLI students. There can be financial, social, and academic repercussions. When caught up in the Honor Code system, FLI students may not have the institutional knowledge on how to navigate such a process in the same way their white and wealthier counterparts might.

The severe punishments, ranging from a reprimand to expulsion, meted out to students accused of Honor Code violations negatively affect all students, but are especially harmful to FLI students. One common punishment for violating the Honor Code is suspension from school for a semester or more. However, the subset of suspended students who have to repeat semesters because of disciplinary action are not eligible for financial aid during their repeated term. This contingency makes the Honor Code a monumental threat to FLI students, who, without financial aid, would find themselves thousands of dollars in debt as a result of student loans, which are suggested as an alternative way of funding study at Princeton. These effects of the Honor Code can have devastating impacts on FLI students — students who rely on a Princeton education for the chance of upward mobility but instead find themselves deep in debt.

If you look at the two links in the first sentence, you’ll find no evidence that the negative effects of the Honor Code on FLI students are worse than their effects on non-FLI students, except in the financial hit that it causes. The second link (“has shown”) gives opinions and anecdotes but no evidence of disproportional harm to FLI students. The first link (“reporting”) simply makes an assertion based on financial burdens, and it’s from the Daily Princetonian as well:

Disproportionate impact on FLI students

One of the strongest criticisms leveraged against the Honor Code over the years points to how the system appears to put low-income students at a unique disadvantage. Leo said that, in his own experience, it felt as though the system “disproportionately affects students of color and FLI students.”

“Latinx and FLI students I’ve spoken with who have been called before the Committee discussed the extensive anxiety induced by the Committee’s initial phone call,” Soraya Morales Nuñez ’18 wrote in 2017 in a guest opinion piece for the ‘Prince.’ “Others who have testified before this Committee told me about experiencing severe intimidation as well as unnecessary mental and emotional distress at the hands of peers that walk the same halls as us.”

Yes, but any student accused of cheating and up for a hearing will be scared. Where’s the evidence that “Latinx” and FLI students have more anxiety? It goes on

Students receiving financial aid who are found responsible for an Honor Code violation also experience an added financial burden compared to students who pay full tuition.

“If you are required to repeat a semester for disciplinary reasons,” the University’s financial aid award terms state, “you will not be eligible for a University grant for the repeated term. Student loans may be requested to cover your need in this situation.”

This financial disadvantage may be true, but seems to me irrelevant to whether a student has committed an Honor Code violation and what the punishment should be. If you get financial aid and cheat and are suspended, it would be deeply weird if you’re paid for the semester during which you’re suspended. The aid is for attending college, not sitting out a semester because you transgressed. But Santos wants subsidized cheating breaks (see below).

Finally, there’s supposedly a disproportionate penalty in “loss of respect”:

FLI students, like many students, are often afraid of disappointing family and friends. A lack of community support in these situations also puts FLI students at a disadvantage compared to their wealthier peers, whose communities often include people who are college-educated and have been exposed to academic integrity systems similar to Princeton’s Honor Code, and may understand the process better.

This makes little sense to me.  Your friends and family should be disappointed if you’re found guilty of cheating, and the claim about “support networks” helping wealthier students more is mere speculation without evidence. As for FLI students not “understanding the process”, I noted above that I’m pretty sure that the students are told about the rules from the outset. Princeton students, you now, are not dummies, even the FLI ones, as the soft bigotry of this accusation implies.

After calling for dismantling the Honor code, Santos appears to become timorous toward the end and makes just two recommendations that, far from dismantling the Code, just tweak it a bit:

The University can, and should, take tangible steps towards making the Honor Code a more equitable aspect of Princeton. The University should make financial aid continually available to students who must repeat a term because of disciplinary punishment, as the punishment unfairly targets FLI students, who are unable to complete their Princeton education without access to financial aid.

Secondly, students convicted of Honor Code violations should have an option to attach a letter from a faculty member to their transcript, in which a faculty member can attest to their development since the violation. Finally, the University should offer sessions aimed at educating students on how the Honor Code works. These approaches can begin to limit the injustices FLI students face on campus and can better prepare every student to fight injustice outside the Orange Bubble.

I disagree with the first suggestion because people who cheat are not entitled to financial rewards during the period of punishment (when a person goes to jail, their salary isn’t paid while they’re in stir—except for Palestinians who are jailed for killing or wounding Israelis and are part of the “pay for slay” system). I’m not sure about the letter from a faculty member, which has the potential of being abused by a student choosing a sympathetic faculty member rather than an objective assessor.

I doagree with the last recommendaton: there should be at least some orientation about how the Honor Code works and where to look it up.  If that guidance doesn’t exist, it should. But remember that students learn from the beginning of elementary or middle school that cheating is wrong, and the Honor Code is in the student handbook. Again, Princeton students are the elite, entitled, and the smart. One can presume that they know that cheating is wrong, and if they have any questions it’s easy to get them answered.

h/t: Ginger

31 thoughts on “Princeton students call for dismantling the student honor code because it “mirrors the criminal justice system”

  1. With this, the Daily Princetonian has, I think, achieved the ne plus ultra of what was the best turn-of-phrase recently deceased then-speechwriter Michael Gerson ever penned for President Dubya — “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

  2. It seems to me to be a stretch to claim that the Honor Code disproportionally impacts FLI students, but I suppose that the claim could be put to an empirical test. That’s probably not what the complainant wants to see happen, however. Data would muddy the ideological waters.

    No, suspended students should not get paid. Yes, students need to have orientation regarding how the Honor Code works and what their obligations and responsibilities are.

    I don’t recall honor codes where I got my degrees, though I did see occasional wandering eyes during exams. I once in a Physical Chemistry class had a student ask me in advance of an exam to place my paper where he could see it. I refused.

    The first time I encountered an Honor System was as a young professor at Virginia Tech. It seemed to work well, and it definitely gave the benefit of the doubt to the accused—which I think is a good thing. That said, I was always a bit uncomfortable with the requirement for students to report possible violations, as I thought that this put students into an adversarial position. My guess is that, because of the natural inclination *not* to want to accuse peers of malfeasance, many potential violations went unreported. Maybe that’s how the system was meant to work. Only the most egregious cases were reported and brought to the Honor Court.

  3. Is it not also an example of “soft bigotry” to assume, as the logic of the article suggests, that low income students and those from minority communities are more likely to cheat and be dishonest? And therefore end up engaged in the disciplinary system of the university? That’s not even « soft «  bigotry but rather full on racism and class prejudice.

    1. The “logic of the article” may reflect the statistics, we don’t know. At the university at which I taught, there were disproportionately many African-Americans, and disproportionately many athletes, involved with the Honors system. By “involved”, I mean cases that went to full-scale investigations, not necessarily to trial.

    2. Yes. The obvious “solution” to the writer’s concerns is to exempt people of color and low income/first generation students from following the Honor Code, but keep it in place for the rest of the students. This would not only hamper the ability of the first group to get the sort of sound education which involves discipline and integrity, but would stir up and probably increase racism. THEY can’t be expected to be honorable. Of course.

      What an embarrassing suggestion.

  4. “The University should lead by example by dismantling the Honor Code system, which acts as a barrier to social mobility and a more equitable society. Only once such internal injustices are addressed can we make real-world changes.”

    This may be true, but I only see two possibilities. Either the system is not administered properly or fairly (bias) or it is administered fairly.

    In the first case the answer is to take steps to prevent bias, not to destroy the system and allow cheating to happen with no consequences. Besides being unfair to other students I’d argue that it is unfair to the student caught cheating for the school to allow them to do so with no consequences. I’d also argue that it would be irresponsible of the school to not make an effort to prevent cheaters from being loosed on society.

    In the second case, there being negative consequences for cheating may indeed act as a barrier but that is the entire point, and I’m entirely okay with that. There may certainly be arguments to be had about the finer points of the system in action, but there being consequences for cheating might instill fear is bad? I agree that a student might be afraid when they get caught cheating, but that sounds like a positive to me. A deterrent that mitigates cheating. Experiencing anxiety, intimidation, mental and emotional distress when confronted about your cheating? I can believe it. Again, sounds entirely appropriate to me. Loss of respect? No financial aid while not going to school because you’ve been suspended for cheating? Again, this is as it should be, IMO.

    1. Exactly. The “processes of questioning, evidence gathering, witness depositions” are like the analogous procedures of white empiricism, the core of the colonialist system of gathering objective information about the world. All these procedures must be dismantled in the interest of Social Justice. They will be replaced by Standpoint Theory, and by student affirmations of correct DEI values.

  5. The above argument made in the op-ed is deeply flawed, and I can’t see how it could go forward. But there is a parallel to other situations that are deeply unjust, imo.
    For example, suppose two people in two different cars each get pulled over for the same kind of violation, and they each get a ticket. One person is in the middle-class, and so they pay the ticket and maybe see a bump up in car insurance. They will just carry on with their lives. The other person is struggling to hold down a job and make various necessary payments for groceries for their family, rent, and medications. They must make a choice, and wind up choosing to not pay the ticket so now they find themselves in court. With a missed day from work they find themselves out of a job, and that is just the beginning of their downward slide.
    This sort of thing happens a lot, and it seems not at all fair to me.

    1. I agree what you describe is an injustice. Some people have suggested a sort of sliding-scale fee structure where the violation fine is priced relative to the guilty party’s income. This idea has never taken hold.

        1. I don’t really see how this is any more “just”, if anything it’s worse. If I’m poor, and get a speeding ticket, I pay a $10 fine, but if I’m rich and get a speeding ticket, I pay $1000? Moreover, this seems like it would incentivize the police to run speed traps in wealthy neighborhoods or only pull over luxury cars going 10 mph over and ignore the rust buckets going 30 mph over the limit.

          And what of college kids with no income? They can just do what they want, because they presumably have no money?

    2. If you can’t do the time (or pay the fine), don’t do the crime.
      Poor people should take extra care not to run red lights if they can’t afford to pay fines.
      Don’t accelerate at yellows is a good rule. And speeding should be out of the question.
      I don’t know why this is so difficult. Keeping a clean driving record is not all that hard. Sounds like being a scofflaw is an excuse as to why someone can’t hold down a job.

      1. Leslie MacMillan, you forgot to add the little “/s” at the end of your obviously satirical comment.

        I speak as someone who just got his first speeding ticket in 15 years yesterday evening. Which is hard to complain about since I go pretty much everywhere at 85 mph plus–just like half of the people in the 65 mph-posted zones.

        But this: ““If you don’t cheat, you needn’t fear. This code no more instills fear in students than the criminal justice system instills fear in law-abiding citizens.”

        As Robert Grossman and David Anderson note, this doesn’t reflect the world that we live in. Over-prohibited, over-policed, over-arrested, over-charged, over-prosecuted, over-convicted, over-sentenced, over-incarcerated, over-subjected to onerous parole conditions…and WAY more so if one is poor or a member of what was once referred to as “the subject races.”

        None of which has a damned thing to do with the ridiculous Princeton screed.

  6. “If you don’t cheat, you needn’t fear. This code no more instills fear in students than the criminal justice system instills fear in law-abiding citizens. ”

    I am an obsessively law abiding citizen (I don’t even speed on the highway), unless my intent is to violate an unjust law in an act of civil disobedience. And the criminal justice system scares the crap out of me. I’ve read far too many accounts of innocent persons convicted of crimes they did not commit.

    It seems to me I’ve been reading an account of an innocent man that seems to have recently been beaten to death by several police officers. That should scare the crap out of anyone. And please don’t reply that he was not innocent. By definition he was innocent, by law presumed innocent until convicted in court.

  7. Perhaps a common thread behind the woke shenanigans is the fear of being judged and rejected – possibly a social anxiety disorder if taken to extremes?

    So for the generation which has come of age under the panoptican social messaging regime one possible response is to remove the machinery of judgement. If there are no rules you cannot be judged. Another is to make sure you are up to date on the latest ‘social fashions’ so that you are not ‘rejected’.

    Of course there could be a downside to this…

  8. Princeton itself is “a barrier to social mobility and a more equitable society,” since it’s a finishing school for the ruling class, so I vote for it to be abolished. The students can attend community colleges and try cheating there instead.

  9. Have we arrived at that point where “honor” is now an anachronism and something that can hardly be pledged if not understood?

  10. Did I get it correctly that a woke person says that minority students cheat more often? And then the same people turn around and accuse us in bigotry!

    (My opinion and experience is that most cheating is done by students who can pass exams honestly only with great difficulties, if at all. My university has the same admission criteria for all groups, so we have proportionally fewer members of some minorities, but those who are admitted cope no worse and cheat no more often than majority students. But I can believe that in a system aiming at equity and using affirmative action, many minority students don’t really belong there, struggle and try to pass by cheating. In such a system, cheating may indeed become a minority thing, another bad consequence of the original sin of abandoning meritocracy.)

  11. (finally the system is fully working again!)

    There should also be a system where they could both defend a charge as one would in court, are deemed fully innocent until proven guilty and also have the right to challenge a final decision at a later date for whatever reason legally fit.

    I admit some of how the honor code was written was a bit vague for some people and I’d go into further depth with a more detailed booklet or the like on it.

  12. A slightly different aspect: I’m not happy about the students needing to sign a statement saying they’ll abide by the honor code before taking a test, and if they don’t, they will be investigated. Yikes! Does this not recall the loyalty oaths? Why not insist on the Pledge of Allegiance before every class?

  13. Zooming out and viewing the big picture, high schools are now beefing up programs for children who don’t want to go to college. This, what used to be called the technical track, is a reaction to the failures resulting from the push over the last several decades to send every kid to college. Indeed, there are those who are not fit for college but who still deserve to exercise their unique talents and earn a good living doing so. For this program to succeed, we need a change in our societal judgment on the values white collar and blue collar jobs. Freddie DeBoer writes on this theme from time to time.

  14. Clearly, people like this haven’t thought through the implications.

    Do you want your heart surgeon or your pilot to have gotten passes on cheating? Really?

    Ken Kukec nailed it at 1: “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

  15. What I would like to see is an essay written by a student from an elite university investigating what impact cheating has on society. Imagine a culture which values nothing more than what anyone can get away with instead of valuing knowledge, experience, and hard work. Honesty may have intrinsic value, but it also has a real impact on the day to day lives of people and the success of a society.

    In addition, I share other commenters views that her essay implies that FLI and students of color A. don’t know what cheating is and B. are more likely to cheat than other students.

    1. In “a culture which values nothing more than what anyone can get away”, who knows what characters might become millionaire real estate developers and/or President?

Leave a Reply