Honor System, The,

Honor System, The, has been a cherished tradition at Princeton since its establishment in 1893. While it has undergone some procedural changes, its central principle has been upheld -- that students accept full responsibility for their conduct in written examinations. There is no proctoring; and an examination paper must bear the signed pledge, substantially as it was first drawn: ``I pledge my honor that, during this examination, I have neither given nor received assistance.''

The Honor System had its origin in student dissatisfaction with faculty proctoring of examinations. In 1893 the Daily Princetonian called for the establishment of a system whereby students would have ``sole charge of examinations.'' Such a plan had been introduced at William and Mary and followed at the University of Virginia, where Woodrow Wilson had known it. Princeton student leaders gained the support of Dean James O. Murray, who presented a proposal at a faculty meeting, where Wilson's eloquent plea brought a favorable vote. An immediate success, the Honor System attracted wide attention in the press and on other campuses.

In 1895 the first Constitution of the Honor System, not greatly different from the present one, was adopted. It designated an Honor Committee of six and provided that if a student were found guilty of a violation, the committee would recommend to the faculty his separation from the College. For conviction, two of six votes were required; this was subsequently changed to five of six. By unanimous vote of the student body at a mass meeting in 1921 the committee was enlarged to seven members and authorized to recommend leniency in exceptional cases.

During the 1920s an attempt was made to extend ``the Spirit of the Honor System'' to ``cover the whole life of the students,'' but it was soon apparent that this would erode the Honor System itself, and the scheme was abandoned. Since then the Honor System has applied, as originally intended, only to written examinations. All other cases of misconduct go to the Committee on Discipline, composed of students and faculty members.

In 1975 the Constitution was further amended to provide the possibility of a one-year separation as well as permanent separation from the University, to enumerate the rights of the accused, and to place the power to amend the Constitution with the undergraduate governing body rather than a mass meeting.

Two long-standing practices, not in the Constitution, have contributed to the strength of the Honor System. Each entering student must state, by personal letter to the Honor Committee, his willingness to abide by the system and to report any violation observed. The latter requirement has often been questioned, but was implicit in the compact between faculty and students in 1893, whereby the students assumed responsibility for the conduct of examinations with the understanding that the individual's responsibility to the undergraduate body as a whole transcends any reluctance to report a fellow student. A second time-honored custom is a meeting of all entering students at the beginning of the academic year, at which members of the Honor Committee and an outstanding alumnus entrust the Honor System to the new students.

The Honor System is less a set of rules than a state of mind -- that honesty in examinations is assumed -- and is a common bond among Princetonians.

Jeremiah S. Finch


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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