More than angry complaints needed for effective Honor Council reform

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February 18, 2011

12:07 AM

Apparently, it’s that time of year again: The Honor Council is under review. The Honor System Review Committee has begun its inquiry, and students — at least the few still interested — are airing their favorite criticisms. So far, the majority of detractors simply spout a disorganized list of grievances that amount to a simple refrain: “The Honor Council is bad.” Some call for its abolition, others for undefined reform, transparency or oversight — many ask for both.

In order to have a debate about the Honor Council, the criticism must be organized so the rational can be separated from the inane and hyperbolic. To that end, we should investigate the different criteria against which the Honor Council can be judged, beginning with the question: Should we have an Honor Code at the College? There can be no Honor Council without a code, and if one does not believe in the Honor Code, then one will logically disagree with the Honor Council. However, the vast majority of students seem to hail our code, and there have been no serious attempts to abolish it. This is wise, since a good deal of empirical research shows that the existence of an understood, respected and enforced Honor Code reduces instances of student misconduct.

We can now move to the next level. Should there be a body which sanctions Honor Code violators? Perhaps this question is a bit more controversial, but I believe that an Honor Code necessitates a governing body tasked with enforcing it. It has been said many times that the Honor Code and the Honor Council are not one in the same, and while it is true in that the Honor Council does not embody or hold a monopoly over the virtue of the code, one is not possible without the other. To have a code but no enforcing body would be to say that the integrity the Code fosters in students is enough to stop all proscribed behavior. It’s a nice thought, but history and human nature suggest that such an idealistic utopia is fantasy.

Furthermore, an attempt to prosecute violations of the Honor Code through other existing channels, such as the Dean of Student’s Office or the Student Conduct Council, would discourage Code violations but at the same time render the Honor Code moot. If violations of the Code were treated like conduct violations, what would the difference be between the Honor Code and the Student Handbook’s regulations? If we grant the need for both an Honor Code and some form of Honor Council, we may progress to the next question.

Should the Honor Council be composed of students? On the one hand, students naturally have a better understanding of their classmates than do administrators or faculty, and a council of students adheres to the ideal of self governance. On the other hand, the accused may question young adults’ suitability to adjudicate alleged academic violations; and with a small student body the potential problems associated with impartiality are numerous. With that said, it seems hypocritical to demand a student voice in almost every aspect of the College’s and the city’s decision making, but then suddenly reverse course when it comes to one particular body. Do we respect our classmates’s intelligence and impartiality only in matters where they cannot threaten us? Some research suggests that student prosecution of violations may help to reduce such behavior by giving moral responsibility to the student body’s collective “self.” Finally, prosecutions under the Honor Council are overseen by the Dean of Students Office, which has the ability to modify verdicts and sanctions. Appeals are heard by a body consisting of student, faculty and representatives of the administration, providing mature oversight.

From here, we can debate matters such as how the Council should be selected, funded and overseen, as well as how to ensure impartiality and correct procedure. These areas are more apt targets for discussion and possible revision. Issues of this sort should be calmly debated, without bombastic threats to abolish the entire system. For my part, I believe some critics will have little to say on these matters because they are not truly interested in adjusting the system, but rather on taking their animosity toward the Honor Council as a starting point and stitching together the complaints of the moment into a call for its destruction.

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