- EphBlog - http://ephblog.com -

Learning from History: The Social Honor Code Proposal of 2004

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.

Comments Disabled (Open | Close)

Comments Disabled To "Learning from History: The Social Honor Code Proposal of 2004"

#1 Comment By hwc On February 10, 2008 @ 9:32 pm

Great post, Jonathan.

Nothing to add except that it is probably a more daunting change to implement a functional honor code with the requisite community buy-in than it would be to eliminate racial slurs.

It’s simple to copy Haverford’s language. It’s much more difficult to copy Haverford’s community culture. The former without the later won’t work.

BTW, Haverford’s honor code require’s regulary re-ratification by affirmative vote by a large super-majority of the student body. In recent years, they have struggled to get the required affirmative vote.

#2 Comment By dkane On February 10, 2008 @ 10:51 pm

1) This is a brilliant post, capturing exactly the sort of student institutional knowledge that usually gets lost.

2) Shame on current CC Secretary Remington Sheppard ’08 for not posting CC minutes on-line. Future generations of students will curse you for your laziness.

3) Could Jonathan or someone else from that era tell us what these “worse incidents” were?

4) I hope that current students read this post closely and ask Jonathan questions. History lessons are not just for the textbooks.

#3 Comment By Will Slack ’11 On February 10, 2008 @ 10:54 pm

As a part of the current effort, and as someone who did not know of this past attempt, I appreciate this post tremendously.

Of your wishes, I will make sure #1 comes to pass. #2 is one of the reasons we are putting the idea forth. For #3, the current code is only amenable by both students and faculty, something we could discuss, but since this code will cover both, I think we’ll have to give faculty a voice. #4 is already recognized.

Again, thanks much for posting this.

#4 Comment By FROSH mom On February 10, 2008 @ 11:13 pm


I was fully prepared to take a ‘leave of absence’ from EphBlog , but not without telling you that this post is great!

Responsible, conscientious, informative…..perfect timing as well. The “Pact Against Indifference” must be truly grateful.

#5 Comment By hwc On February 11, 2008 @ 1:05 am

For #3, the current code is only amenable by both students and faculty, something we could discuss, but since this code will cover both, I think we’ll have to give faculty a voice.

I’m no fan of these honor codes. However, if you are going to pursue it, I would strongly recommend leaving the faculty out of it entirely. Let them screw around with their own code.

The only way an honor code can possibly work is for it to be by the students, for the students, and administered solely by the students. The whole point is student ownership of responsibility.

#6 Comment By Jonathan On February 11, 2008 @ 1:07 am

Hey Will,

I am really glad you see my post as helpful, because I’d have understood if it had looked to current students like I was trying to ram a history lesson down your throats. I just remember being active in student government and feeling so frustrated that the admin often had the upper hand of a long view and knowledge of history that I couldn’t match. So I intend to help students learn from the trials of my era, as much as I can, and may you go farther than we did.

I don’t know why my email doesn’t show up here anymore. Anyone with follow-up questions or in need of any CC documents/emails from 2001-2005 should contact me at 05jl [at] williams.edu

I am touched that you’ve chosen to value my four wishes. As for #3, I understand your point. I definitely see how faculty need a say in academic honor policy, and maybe the ultimate say, but you can bet that the idea of being truly involved in Williams social life would make most faculty quiver. I don’t see it ever being something that they, as a body, are wise about.

If there ever is a social code, powers that be may insist on a faculty say, maybe even a majority voice, but it will be an indefensible requirement. This is wholly a product of students so far. Many of you have rightly pointed out that the responses of administrators and faculty have left you unsatisfied. So where do they come in now? Rightly, only if you invite them—which you may in your wisdom choose to do. I look forward to reading of your decisions.

#7 Comment By hwc On February 11, 2008 @ 1:16 am

….but you can bet that the idea of being truly involved in Williams social life would make most faculty quiver.

They don’t want to touch the alcohol liability issue with a ten foot pole. The Williamstown Police have already arrested the Head of Security at Williams College once (ouch!). Wait ’til one of the .40 BAC alcohol hospitalizations doesn’t pull through.

#8 Comment By Ellen Song On February 11, 2008 @ 1:34 am

I would also like to extend my thanks to you for posting this up. This will be extremely helpful for our generation of students who are trying to implement a similar code. Thank you, also, for offering to answer more questions via e-mail.

#9 Comment By frank uible On February 11, 2008 @ 7:12 am

Since such a code would be a student governance issue and presumably would not apply to faculty, staff, alums and other non-students, it is suggested that they individually and collectively pack up their arrogances and stay away from the question completely – irrespective of their beliefs that they have things useful to contribute.

#10 Comment By Justin Thyme On February 11, 2008 @ 11:28 am

“Section VI: We are obligated to report our own breach to Honor Council. ”

Are you serious. Who in their right mind in an age of denial, where no one assumes personal responsibility, and where responsibility is a shared event, is going to take ownership of guilt? And then you advance the issue of moral superiority.

Moral superiority is often equated with ethnocentrism. It often is used to describe ethnic strife, racial bigotry, and cultural exclusiveness as characteristics of morally superiority and the imperialist tendencies of countries and cultures. Often one will notice the social and political policies that foster domination and control of indigenous populations using moral and religious superiority to justify their aggression.

To achieve mutual understanding, we must study the respective religious texts of our myriad cultures, their cultural norms and attitudes towards others, the cultural laws of each respective religious group and the understandings of how we apprehend others from the racial standpoint. Perhaps at that point we may have a partial insight, through the religious cultural and racial lens, in how we each perceive each other.

Often we hear the voice for peaceful collaboration, dialogue, global peace, but deception is at the root of such approaches, since we use this technique for those who disagree with us. We often attempt to enter into a rapprochement in order to compromise the adversary in surrendering their identity, their virtues and their values. We often depreciate the value of others in our determination of the use value of the given adversary.

The incident to date is a distraction. They are using this incident to gain support to justify the continuous shaping and molding of our predisposition towards others, weakening our resolve to learn how to comport ourselves as different entities with differing outlooks.

“Section VII: That is all we need, a group of eight to decide whether the perpetrator is guilty or not. ”

It appears that they are asking for a peer review committee. Who will choose this auspicious group? What if they have prejudices that circumscribe my person? Working by committee smacks me of socialist tendencies to eliminate individualistic ideals and move our society to group forming consensus. Either we group think or your are out.

The purpose of these exercises is to control group behavior. The incident is a minor one that has been taken out of proportions and far exceed the act, but which is necessary in order to upset the current social order and replace it with a more tolerant one with a more authoritative approach to where individual expression ceases to exist, and where people, out of fear, restrain any outward spontaneous expression for want of reprisal or condemnation.

People need to learn on how to get along with one another and it is not always easy.

#11 Comment By rory On February 11, 2008 @ 11:43 am

HAHAHAHA. “working by committee smacks me of socialist tendencies to eliminate individualistic ideals…”

and if you look closely, there’s an evil communist boogieman under your bed just waiting for you to go to sleep. LMAO.

#12 Comment By Justin Thyme On February 11, 2008 @ 12:48 pm


HOHOHOHOHO: How did you manage to see evil communist boogeymen under “our” bed just waiting for “us” to go to sleep?” The leap you made was entirely presumptuous of you and demonstrates the dictum: “watch before you leap.”

A factor of interest in group decision making is conformity, or some defined behavioral or attitudinal change as a result of real or imagined group pressure. The effect of group pressure and its influence on conforming to the will of the group has long been studied.

Generally, it works by creating enduring personality characteristics after enduring long exposure, attitudinal changes, due to real or imagined group pressure, and compliance as going along with the will of the group. In other words, rory, groups overwhelm individuality in that within the context of compliance, outward behaviors change.

Conformity in this respect, with regards the ‘incident’, may appear in the broader context of the cultural environment Williams finds itself to be expedient in achieving goals that strongly influence behavior collectively. Collectivist tendencies are found more with socialized societies, rory, like the Far East, Middle East, certain parts of the Mediterranean and other politically socialized societies) rather than nativistic northern and western European societies and North American countries where people generally support non-conforming individualist tendencies.

The concept of collectivism accounts for behavioral differences between cultures. The greater the tendency for collectivism, the degree for compliance and conformity with the result being the person’s vulnerability towards in-group identification.

Collectivist societies often differ on how they perceive collectivism, that is, on their attitude towards in-group harmony.

We here in the United States, rory, like to express our ideas openly, to freely express opposing viewpoints, and to be less inhibited by group making decision processes as found in more collectivist societies. These societies are often manifest an inhibition of expression for this would result in offending their in-group effectiveness.

#13 Comment By Gerru Lindo ’04 On February 11, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

hmm… brings back memories.

What I DON’T remember is what happened afterwards. why did this die, again?

#14 Comment By Jonathan On February 12, 2008 @ 10:34 am

Gerry! My man! What happened afterwards was dead week. That was one thing, but I cant answer in full because, as I said, my intent was either for the impetus to be lost (because I opposed it) or for me to free-ride on it as a way to advance an agenda I’d had for a while: to include faculty in the honor code as well as students. So my motivations weren’t like others’.

There just wasn’t enough interest in pursuing the code at the time, near as I can tell. You know how something like this requires at least one deeply invested student repeatedly whipping others. She didn’t, nor did the other whip, Chin. You and I both volunteered to help Sabra. I as glad when it got dropped . . . what was your point of view?

Still remember those days fondly — your spars with Roseman, the times you took minutes for me when I had to go to the bathroom, and your constant, level-headed, smart contributions from the chair next to mine. Miss you, man.

#15 Comment By Sabrina Wirth On May 4, 2008 @ 3:29 am

Oh my God… I just wrote an incredibly lengthy response and because I forgot to add my email, the website just got rid of everything I wrote!!

First of all, Jonathan, I am SO happy I came across your blog! You were always so good about recording everything!

Second, I have to say that my one big regret I have from Williams is not having pushed that honor code proposal further and to just let it die. I feel like I left Williams with unfinished business and it’s just awful to think that if I had only been more persistent, it could have worked.

Initially, I had incredible interest in initiating this project. I was so sick of hearing about thefts, vandalism, disrespect, and only being able to come up with retroactive solutions, that it prompted me to think up others. I believed (and still believe) that if we try to modify the way people feel towards the community before they even are a part of it, then they will contribute a greater sense of trust and respect towards others when they become members. My whole response to the disrespect lurking around campus was that it be nipped at the bud. How could this be done? Implement a code to prospective students and have them arrive at Williams with the Honor Code mentality in their head.

The proposal may have come across as idealistic, but I figured that if Haverford was successful in integrating it as part of its college experience, then why should it be so difficult for Williams students? Of course, no one likes to be told what to do and expect repercussions for our lapses in judgement, but the Code was supposed to be a guide to try and live by- something to re-establish the type of behavior expected of a student residing at Williams College. It was supposed to be a guide that should have already been a part of people’s lives – a code of conduct that as human beings we should, ideally, be following.

Nevertheless, and to my great great disappointment and regret, the honor code project fell through, despite the wonderful group of volunteers who were willing to help me out on this venture. Perhaps it was the lack of support from the administration and faculty which would have given us the necessary motivation, or the daunting time frame required to enforce the Honor System, or maybe because Williams was just not ready for that kind of change at that time. In any case, I regret I did not go through with it.

Well this is becoming even longer than my original comment, if that’s at all possible. I do want to say though, that although the Honor Code proposal withered away, I am so happy and relieved that you, Jonathan, have reminded people about this and sort of resurrected it from the depths of the College Council minutes! If anyone plans to bring this proposal back to the forefront of Williams politics, at least there is a groundwork already laid out.

Thanks for writing about it!

#16 Comment By frank uible On May 4, 2008 @ 9:47 am

The honor code should be the same as the simple and only rules Dick Farley developed for the football team years ago, namely – 1) be on time; and 2) don’t be a “jerk”, freedom of expression and other freedoms to the contrary notwithstanding. If students can’t understand and abide by those rules, then Williams probably ain’t the place for ’em – three strikes on violation of rule 2 (more for rule 1) and they’re out, with doubts about the occurrence of final strikes resolved in favor of the students. No Napoeonic Code is necessary or desirable.