Collegiate Honor Codes



            It is said of some colleges, such as Princeton and the military academy at West Point, that they have an "honor code" for their students, as if others schools did not.  But for all practical purposes other schools do; every college has rules governing academic dishonesty, and somehow tries to enforce them, whether or not the words "honor code" are part of the system.  Cheating on examinations is against the rules everywhere, whether at Princeton or Lower State.   Some sort of court is assembled to judge guilt or innocence when the time comes, and from a judgment of guilt will follow some punishment.   Why then the phrase "honor code," and what is the difference giving rise to it?  The best way to answer is to describe how the rules are written in some typical cases.


            Princeton University has what it calls an Honor System for written examinations.  Professors who give examinations in a classroom or auditorium are required to leave the room once the examination has begun, and can return only to pick up the papers.  Each student writes and signs the statement, "I pledge my honor that I have not violated the Honor Code during this examination," before handing it in, and it is explicit in the code that failure to report another's cheating is one such violation.  The "Honor Committee" that tries alleged violations is made up entirely of students, and proceeds according to a Constitution first adopted in 1893 and most recently amended in 1980, a constitution that includes mention of a normal penalty of a year's suspension for a first offense and permanent expulsion from the University for a second.  In first offenses aggravated by perjury the suspension may be for two or three years, while in cases "with extenuating circumstances" there may be no suspension, but rather "probation with supervision until graduation."


            The obvious question here is, why drag in the notion of "honor"?   Shouldn't we all live by the law, and does invoking the word "honor" make any difference?  Most colleges do not publish an "honor code" any more than do municipalities and States.  Most universities, like most governments, publish rules of behavior and then simply punish those who transgress.  The guilty are punished because they broke the law, not because they have broken their word about not transgressing.  Why make two crimes out of one?  New Jersey, where Princeton is, doesn't do this; any legislature that tried to require its citizens to sign a pledge "on his honor" not to steal or commit assault would be hooted out of office.  We all know it is dishonorable to commit a crime in daily life, and we all scorn the proved criminal.  Isn't that an honor code already, one known to all, without the ceremony of signatures and oaths?  Why does Princeton make it so complicated?


            Princeton is an old university, by American standards, and still carries a gentlemanly tradition from the last century, before purely secular justifications for the law were considered sufficient.  I believe it is by looking at the aristocratic code of England that we can understand the impulse that led to the Princeton code. 


            An English gentleman doesn't cheat at cards, for example (It isn't done, you see), not because cheating is theft as theft is understood at Old Bailey, but because it violates a different code, a code common folk need not be expected to understand.  A gentleman's mere theft might even be excused under some circumstances, at least among gentlemen, but not cheating at cards, though this is an offense not even listed in the Criminal Code that applies to ordinary people.   


            So at Princeton: academic fraud is "not done" under a code in which the criminal law of the State of New Jersey takes no interest.  The transgressor is either expelled (cf. cast out of polite society, sent to Malaysia to live on remittances) or suspended (cf. "sent to Coventry") for a limited period.  The very word "honor" breathes of medieval fealties; it has no counterpart in a rational criminal code. 


            A rational code merely lists offenses and penalties in  graded ranks, felonies and misdemeanors of various grades, and has no other purpose than to minimize the depredations of the criminal, though with due regard to the cost of the effort.  Its purpose is at bottom moral, of course:  what higher morality can there be than the protection of the public?  But it will not bankrupt the treasury, or invade our privacy with random searches and seizures, just to be sure that theft, or even murder, is reduced to zero.  And it would consider the requirement that all citizens take an oath to avoid crime an unreasonable cost.  But Princeton does.


      The difference is at bottom one of religion, and religion was a more natural background for a Princeton regulation in 1893 than it is now.  We have some remnant of this in the oaths we give our elected officers, from Mayors to Presidents, even today.  It is plain that a judge or President who does not do his job should be and can be fired, that is, not re-elected, and that if his failure includes crime he should be jailed.  It is also plain that this is what we do, and that the threat of non-reelection (or jail) really represents all the power the public can apply; but the religious tradition makes many of us feel more comfortable if he first promises, with God as his witness, to do what he was hired for. 


            We watch his performance just the same. 


            So it is at Princeton, a ceremonial remnant where a simple statute would suffice, and where in more plebeian colleges it does.


            The other remnant of aristocratic tradition in the Princeton Honor Code is of course the range of penalties, all of which are in one form or another exclusion from the company of the honorable, or the threat thereof.  There is no mention of fines, or of court costs, which are considerable in any such adjudication.  The statute doesn't mention failure in the course in which the cheating took place, though this is sometimes a natural consequence of the demonstrated failure to perform.  The professor does have this option if a guilty student is not in fact sent down but remains at school under supervised probation, but at Princeton it is more common for him to give a zero on just the assignment in which the cheating took place, a zero that might or might not entail failure in the course.  If it does, the failure is understood to be an academic judgment and not a punishment.  Niggling punishments like failure in a course are not for gentlemen; only exclusion or its threat are permitted.


            There are other punishments a university can apply, if its purpose is simply to reduce academic fraud.  Students may enjoy certain privileges which the university can withdraw:  living in a certain fraternity house or other special residence, or participation in some cherished extracurricular activity sponsored by the University.  There are many such, from intercollegiate athletics to the campus newspaper or radio station, and any number of campus clubs.

If the university were truly in loco parentis it could "ground" the errant student in a hundred different ways, temporarily of course, the way parents do, without casting him out from polite society (cf. "cutting him off without a nickel.")


            Suggestions concerning appropriate punishments for academic dishonesty are not the point of this essay, and are referred to here only in order to contrast the attitude presupposed by an Honor System with the attitude implied by the principles of a statute law that seeks merely to minimize crime.  Statute law says "Thou shalt not steal" to all citizens alike, but it distinguishes degrees of stealing.  Where Jehovah would have had all thieves stoned to death (an old form of expulsion from the community), and the Honor Code would have the cheat removed from the company of gentlemen, modern law has found a variety of alternate, graded, punishments. These may not entirely satisfy idealists who want to purify their surroundings in accordance with a religious or aristocratic code, but they do serve the more recently legislated standards of those whose interests are more secular and pragmatic.


            It does not follow that the secular and pragmatic colleges have all therefore eschewed the "honor code" in favor of more ordinary statutes.  Even the plebes sometimes imitate their betters.  Consider the College of Engineering of the University of Michigan (in Ann Arbor).  It publishes an Honor Code, and it cannot be said that there is any religious or aristocratic (or military) tradition in the Michigan 'engine school' to account for this.  But a reading of the history of their code and its announced rationale shows that it fits, at least by emulation, into the same pattern of aristocratic values exhibited by Princeton. 


            In particular, the Michigan document entitled Honor Code (Revised 1984) begins with a Forward by the Dean and Executive Committee of the faculty:  "The Honor Code is part of our lives at The College of Engineering.  The standards for personal integrity implied by the Code are a reflection of the standards of conduct expected of engineers...."  (Engineers, mind you, not human beings, or civilized men.)  The handbook includes, towards the end, part of a statement (Faith of an Engineer) said to have been adopted by several engineering societies:  "As an Engineer, I will participate in none but honest enterprises..."  Also included is a fragment from the Canons of Ethics for Engineers, another document of national stature in the profession:  "... if he has proof that another Engineer has been unethical, illegal, or unfair in his practice, he should so advise the proper authority."  By means of these quotations the Michigan honor code is assimilated into the ethics of the engineering profession as a whole, somewhat as the Oath of Hippocrates serves the medical profession.  The code of professional ethics serves as a unifying cement, something to distinguish Them from Us even if We are not a hereditary or monied aristocracy.


            To say that an Honor Code at Princeton is the legacy of an aristocratic tradition is therefore to speak too narrowly.  An aristocratic tradition, like other traditions, is itself the legacy of a more fundamental human impulse.  Groups of human beings with a distinguishable purpose or origin tend to adopt codes, titles, honors and oaths to accentuate their distinction, even if the distinction is one of recent origin, or simply invented for the occasion, as with the secret handshake of a new fraternal lodge.  The egalitarian spirit of the 19th Century tried, when it saw what evil lurked within them, to put an end to these discriminations.  Burns wrote "A man's a man for a'that," and Tennyson pledged allegiance to "the Brotherhood of Man, Confederation of the World."


            It was no help; even at the bottom of the scale there arose Brotherhoods of various sorts of proletarians ---  of Railway Brakemen, for example.  The IWW ("Wobblies"), a militant labor union of the last century,  borrowed hymn tunes to sing of the "Commonwealth of Toil."  Toil!  Even the antithesis of aristocracy was to be made into a unifying experience, distinguishing and ennobling the initiate but not to be shared by the bourgeois outsider.  Anyone can invent distinctions, and most everyone seems to want to.  Therefore, schools of medicine, engineering, journalism and other professions who, much more than upstart knights of labor, enjoy a ready-made distinction analogous to the gentlemanly distinction that characterized the origins of Princeton, find it natural to establish Honor Codes to match their other rites.


            As the Wobblies, though a ruthlessly secular organization, imitated the established religions, as a junior high school composes an Alma Mater as long and tedious as Harvard's, pledging undying devotion to its colors and ideals, so may some other colleges, even without a seventeenth century pedigree or a profession to represent, wish to imitate them in one on another honorific detail including perhaps an Honor Code.  But the ritual really doesn't make a difference in the law.  The College of Literature, Science and the Arts at the University of Michigan, secular, middle-class and non-professional, whose students attend many of the same courses as the Engineering students do, does not have an Honor Code; yet cheating is just as illegal there as on the other side of the quadrangle.


                                       Ralph A. Raimi

September 5, 1991