Final exams begin at Princeton University today. Professors, Lecturers, and Assistants in Instruction (Preceptors) will not be present while students are taking them, trusting them to police themselves. In return, the students will sign their exams under this handwritten statement: I pledge my honor that I have not violated the Honor Code during this examination.
The Honor System, one of Princeton’s most distinctive traditions, was established and has been maintained almost exclusively by undergraduates. Cheating ran rampant at the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) in the late nineteenth century; students saw it as a way to outwit the faculty, while professors expended a great deal of energy trying to catch cheaters. Booth Tarkington (Class of 1893) described this rivalry as a “continuous sly warfare between the professor and the student.” Crib sheets were common, as was sharing answers during tests. Students who refused to collaborate were ridiculed. Reporting fellow students to the faculty was seen as dishonorable and unthinkable for most, while professors would stalk exam rooms looking for any inconsistencies. Sometimes faculty also hired extra proctors help keep an eye on students.
Student dissatisfaction with this culture of cheating and “sly warfare” peaked in 1893, when some of the most influential juniors and seniors proposed an honor pledge. Honor systems were not uncommon at southern schools, such as the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia, and many Princeton undergraduates had gone to southern preparatory schools with prominent and successful honor systems. Senior Charles Ottley (Class of 1893) and several juniors drew on their practical experience with the honor system at the Webb School in central Tennessee as they pushed for an honor system at Princeton.
The Daily Princetonian called for an honor system as proposed by Ottley and others in an editorial dated January 13, 1893, referring to the existing situation as “a disastrous system of espionage” “not…in any way” designed “to elevate the standard of college morality.” They proposed a new way of taking exams. Undergraduates would pledge their honor that they would not cheat by writing and signing the following declaration at the bottom of their test papers: I pledge my honor as a gentleman that, during this examination, I have neither given nor received aid [or assistance]. The faculty would take students at their word and refrain from proctoring examinations. Students would be expected to report any honor code violations they witnessed, and students, by rough consensus, would determine guilt and recommend punishment.
The faculty agreed to the plan later that month:
The Dean presented the matter of supervision in written Examinations and after consideration the following action was taken in reference thereto:
Whereas it appears that there has been a strong and growing Student Sentiment against the practice of cheating in Examinations, and further that the Students desire to have the Examinations so conducted as to be put upon their honor as gentlemen,
Resolved, That until due notice be given to the contrary, there shall be no Supervision of Examinations, each Student simply subscribing at the end of his paper the following Declaration, I pledge my honor as a gentleman that during this Examination I have neither given nor received aid.
(Minutes of the Faculty of the College of New Jersey, Volume 9, January 18, 1893, Dean of the Faculty Records)
Dean Murray’s senior English examinations in January 1893 were the first to be taken under the new system.
There were few reported violations, mostly concentrated in the freshman class. Students took their responsibility of determining guilt and recommending punishment very seriously with strict attention to fairness, so the faculty accepted the recommendations without reservation every time. Students approved an Honor System’s Constitution in 1895, which established a standing committee to judge honor code violations. The committee consisted of the presidents of the four classes plus one junior and one senior selected by the other members. The default punishment was to be expulsion, and only two committee votes would be required for conviction. This was soon amended to five votes of six.
There have been minimal changes to the Honor Code Constitution since its initial adoption. In 1921 the student body unanimously changed the number of committee members to seven. They also agreed that in exceptional cases the committee could recommend a more lenient punishment. A post-war expansion of the Honor System to apply to all academic work instead of just in-class examinations (the “Spirit of the Honor System”) was set aside by the senior council in 1927 as too difficult to enforce fairly. In 1928 some students complained that they were not aware that they would have to abide by the honor code when they matriculated, and specifically, that they did not want to be responsible for turning in cheating classmates. The Honor Code Committee decided to send notice of the honor code to all incoming freshmen and require that they respond, signaling their willingness to abide by it. This practice continues to this day. A mass student assembly was held to explain the honor code every September until the mid-1990s. After Princeton went coed in 1969, gentleman was removed from the pledge to read I pledge my honor that I have not violated the Honor Code during this examination. The size of the committee was also expanded to twelve undergraduates, including alternates. Students are now required to pledge on their honor that they have not cheated on other academic work in addition to in-class examinations, but violations of this pledge fall under the jurisdiction of the discipline committee (made up of faculty and administrators as well as students), not the Honor Code Committee.
After a cheating scandal rocked their campus in 2012, Harvard University adopted its own Honor Code this past May. It is expected to take effect later this year. Yale University is now the only institution in the Ivy League without one.
Board of Trustees Minutes (AC102). Entries on the following dates contain references to the creation of the Honor System: February 9, 1893; June 12, 1893; and June 10, 1895.
Leitch, Alexander. A Princeton Companion. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978).
For further reading:
Current Constitution of the Honor System.
Princeton University Honor Committee website.
Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities of Students of Princeton University.
This post is an expanded version of an FAQ by Matthew Reeder that appeared on our website in 2003. It has been revised and posted here as part of the pending launch of a new Mudd Library website.