Readers may recall that I have made the point a few times that, when it comes to social issues, controversies, and student self-governance at Williams, there is a certain circularity that seems to escape the notice of most on campus. The last time I wrote on this it was to cover 2007’s resurrection of the idea to “lock down” campus dorms to non-residents after a certain hour, in the name of descreasing vandalism. This same idea had been almost foisted on students four years ago, nearly to the day. Thankfully, Security showed forbearance in 2003, and student voters showed good sense in 2007.

The present project of a large group of students to consider adopting a Social Honor Code is another case of nothing new, and as intrepid and proud of their work as today’s students rightly feel, I hope proponents and opponents alike are aware that their peer predecessors had the same concerns and solution. Once again, nearly precisely 4 years ago, a draft of a Social Honor Code was on the floor at College Council. Sabrina Wirth ’05 was its author and main proponent, and she brought it to the floor during the 14 January 2004 Meeting of College Council. The text of her draft and the debate over it are recorded in the linked minutes from that meeting, and included below the break for (highly) interested readers.

Back then, the project was allowed to be forgotten. A number of people including myself volunteered to work with Sabrina on the project, but it was never followed up on, due to a combination of timing, disinterest or suspicion by some in Council, including myself. Then and now, I did not believe in implementing such a code, largely because I knew it would be actually enforced by the dean, and not what I considered a true representative body of the community. The ability to “enforce community standards” is the most broad and vague source of disciplinary power for the Dean, and I had no desire to see it strengthened.

I don’t at all wish to impose my views or arguments on the students of today, though I do hope this:

  1. Students will read Sabrina’s work and the discussions of their predecessor peers.
  2. Students will not make the interpretation of community standards the discretion of a dean, who is already the executor and need not be made judge or jury as well.
  3. If they draft a code, students make it one amendable by students alone. The Academic Honor Code is amendable only by faculty and, in this way, is not a good model for a code of the community. Only a tiny percentage of the faculty are any meaningful part of the social community.
  4. The code be publicly deliberated and voted on, and written records kept of all deliberations. All of this will be crucial to properly implementing and revising such a code in the future.

Awful as scrawling “nigger” is, arguably worse incidents took place shortly before and after Sabrina’s code proposal, and it was not taken up by enough believers to continue her effort. I’d have to bet on the side of the idea of this code being eventually dropped—doing it right would take so much time and thought, and doing it wrong would be awful—but if a code is implemented, one thing is certain: administrators now and ever after will describe it as a mandate, as “the restrictions students convened to place upon themselves.”

They had better be smart ones. When you hand over the freedom to determine community standards informally—through public shame and subtler private mechanisms—no one ever hands it back to you.

The Honor Code suggestions for a code of social conduct, and other revisions
Sabrina Wirth (Prospect) brought to Council what she called a “rough proposal” constructed from her integration of the current Williams Code and Haverford’s. The draft she read to Council is reprinted below:

I. As Williams students, we encourage the free exchange of ideas in an environment that adheres to and protects our community standards. With the privilege of a diverse student body, Williams students should be able to interact and learn from each other in ways that uphold community respect and personal freedom. The Honor Code, therefore, acts as a philosophy to live by, and by which we govern ourselves and our conduct. This includes respectful communication in confronting differences, resolving conflicts through dialogue, respect for personal belongings or space, and academic integrity. In the spirit of this free exchange of ideas, the students and faculty of Williams recognize the necessity and accept the responsibility for actions in violation of the Honor Code.

II. In order for the Honor Code to operate effectively, it depends on the personal concerns for both ourselves, others, and the collective concern for the Williams community. By using the word “community,” we imply the student body, faculty, staff, and administration, each of which contributes to the conception of “community standards.” This Code makes it possible for us to live in a climate of trust and respect, factors that are necessary for personal, community, and academic growth.

III. The student implementation of this Code will begin at their admissions process. By including the Honor Code as one of the prerequisites for joining the Williams Community, the new class will have already been initiated into our philosophy for standards of living. They will enter the community with full knowledge of their responsibility for social and academic conduct, and knowingly accept any measures taken in response to their violation of the Code.

IV. Academic Concerns: A student who enrolls at the College thereby agrees to respect and acknowledge the research and ideas of others in his or her work and to abide by those regulations governing work stipulated by the instructor. Any student who breaks these regulations, misrepresents his or her own work, or collaborates in the misrepresentation of another’s work has committed a serious violation of this agreement.

Students and faculty are to report violations and alleged violations of this agreement. Such reports are to be submitted to the Student Honor Committee.

V. Social Concerns: Social relationships and interactions should be based on mutual respect and concern. We must consider how our words and actions may affect the sense of acceptance essential to an individual’s or group’s participation in the community. Rather than promote unproductive self-censorship, we seek to foster an environment that genuinely encourages respectful expression of values. In the case that we should encounter actions or values that we find degrading to ourselves and to others, we should feel comfortable initiating a dialogue with the mutual goal of increasing our understanding of each other.

Social concerns also deal with the respect of personal and public property. We should be able to live within the Williams community without fear of theft, looting, or vandalism. These actions are a blatant disregard for Community Standards, which make up the core of the Honor Code and the accused parties will be brought before the Honor Committee immediately.

VI. As individuals who are also members of a community, we are obligated to examine our own actions as well as the actions of those around us in light of their effect on the community. If it becomes clear through self-reflection or through expressions of concern by others, that either our academic or social conduct represents a violation of community standards, we are obligated to report our own breach to Honor Council, even if doing so may result in a trial and the possibility of separation from the college.

Similarly, we must confront others when their conduct disturbs us. Ideally, conflicts will be resolved through an initial stage of respectful exchange of dialogue. When we confront someone, we must realize that this process is an exchange in which the goal is to understand the standards and values of the other party in order to avoid the appearance of self-righteousness or moral superiority. The Code and confrontation with the intent for a trial are not to be used as threatening devices against people. To do so would be to go against the spirit and purpose of achieving mutual understanding.

VII. The Joint Faculty-Student Honor System-Disciplinary Committee consists of eight student members. This committee is responsible for determining the guilt or innocence of the accused person or persons, and for recommending appropriate measures to the Dean. A committee of faculty members to be designated by the Faculty will sit with the Student Honor Committee in an advisory capacity.

A quorum of three-quarters shall be required for the Committee to meet. A vote of guilty by at least three-quarters of those present is necessary for conviction. A recommendation for dismissal must be made by unanimous vote of those present, and shall be carried out only with the assent of the President of the College.

The Committee is responsible for informing the student body of the meaning and implications of this statement. The aforementioned faculty committee shall be responsible for informing faculty members of the meaning and implications of this statement.

Any amendments to this statement must be made through a student referendum in which two-thirds of the student body votes, and in which two-thirds of those voting vote for the amendment. These alterations must be ratified by the Faculty.

Sabrina outlined some of her rationale for proposing the changes. “I think we really need a new Honor Code because this year we have already had so many incidents . . . . We live here for four years and we don’t want to worry about getting a curfew because of others’ actions, about having our stuff stolen, nasty emails sent to us, et cetera.”

Jessi England (Class of 2006) asked about the process of amending the Honor Code. Chin answered that changes must be ratified by 2/3 of the faculty.

David Seligman (sub for Junior Advisors) said he thought this was a great idea, but the best thing about it “for the student body as a whole” would be the “referendum itself.”

Jim Irving (Class of 2005) praised the proactive spirit of the proposal, but made three objections to the content. He preferred to have an academic and social contract separate. Other members echoed this view, but

Gerry Lindo (all-campus) later questioned whether this was possible and if we had already in fact progressed past that point with such programs as the First-Year Residential Seminar. Jim also did not like the self-incrimination aspect of Section VI. Finally, he objected to the Community Standards, which he held to be a really vague standard that changes over time and cannot be defined at large because there are so many bodies on campus.

Dan Rooney (Mills, Thompson) didn’t like the “spirit or the content.” “I don’t think it’s a good idea to have a social honor code. [quoting a supporter:] ‘Providing a philosophy to live by?’ I don’t know about anyone else, but I didn’t come to Williams to have anybody dictate to me a life philosophy. I think that’s more of a personal search.”

AB (sub for MinCo): “If you have community standards, you must think about what your community is. I like the free exchange of ideas but there must be politeness in that. I am very upset about the use of that phrase. What is the community? Is it the majority? Who is making [the standards]?”

Skip McManmon (Williams) asked what Sabrina meant by her proposal to integrate the Code into the admissions process. Sabrina suggested that exposing incoming students to the Code and having them write an essay about it would ensure that people read it, and make people realize that Williams is a trustful community. “This way we already get people into Williams who are accepting of this.”

Sophie Hood (sub for Class of 2004) “respectfully totally disagreed” with Dan Rooney. “Our beliefs are already somewhat limited in that we cannot be discriminatory. Secondly, I think that the incidents on this campus in the past few years suggest that a document like this is necessary.”

Jonathan Landsman (secretary) offered his three points on the issue. He said he did not believe that requiring an essay on the code during admission was an honest or effective way to get people to think about and embrace the code, since he believed that, once a student decides he wants to attend a college, he will write whatever he can to get in. Second, he said he could not think of any committee that he would ever trust to enforce something as nebulous as Community Standards, and punish those who violated them. Third, he raised the frequent reference to Code’s standards as those of the community, and of students and faculty both accepting responsibility for what would have to be a job done by both parties. “If we truly believe this,” he said, “any honor and social code should be a requirement for faculty’s employment at the College as well as a student’s enrollment.” He said he would like to see any revision include this.

PJ Bonavitacola (Pratt) disagreed with Section II. “I don’t like anyone telling me how to have a conversation, how to come into contact with someone else’s values. I think people should grow up. Sometimes their feelings will get hurt. I think if anything this will decrease honest dialogue because people will be threatened by being put before [the Honor Committee].”

Ben Cronin (Dennett) commented that is seemed like “an idealistic way to try to resolve a conflict between liberty and order.”

Chin Ho (co-pres) asked Council for members who would help Sabrina work on the Honor Code. The following members and substitutes volunteered: Sophie Hood, Godfrey Bakuli, Gerry Lindo, Philipp Huy, Phoebe Redwood, Michael Greenberg, Michael Henry, Jonathan Landsman.

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