Moving towards a social honor code

In response to a racist incident on campus, President Schapiro wrote, “An awful incident has been described to us. . . . Such hateful behavior lies well outside the boundaries of this community’s standards. . . . None of us can rest until such behavior becomes a thing of the past.”

Two incidents this past week have justifiably sparked concerns and passionate responses. However, the above quote was the administration’s response to a racist incident on May 6, 2005. It illustrates a sad reality about our community; repeated calls to action have not led to lasting results. This time it is our duty to channel this energy into a push toward lasting and substantive change. It is time to establish a Social Honor Code.

Many members of our community view these occurrences as isolated incidents. This perception highlights a disturbing lack of institutional memory. Last year, students were terrified to find swastikas posted in residence halls. A year before, members of the Queer Student Union were physically assaulted at a QSU hosted event. The year before that, a professor used a racial slur against another professor during a faculty meeting. These incidents are a few well-known examples of a disrespectful culture that lingers below the surface of public acknowledgment.

Some students believe that these incidents are unfortunate but largely permissible occurrences that do not merit any substantive response. However, these examples of cowardice, ignorance and hatred degrade our institution and us. They systematically victimize and marginalize our peers. They fracture our community.

The Academic Honor Code – imposed upon the student body by the student body – holds us to the highest academic standards. There is no analogous student-generated standard for social interaction. This must change. The Academic Honor Code vividly demonstrates that academic honesty is important to the student body. This community needs to go through the process of forming a Social Honor Code to show that the Williams student body is committed to holding students, faculty and staff to the highest standards of moral conduct.

The College has vague published protocols to handle such issues. Neither the administration nor the student body knows how these poorly established policies are supposed to be implemented. For any particular incident, the College’s immediate response is crafted – without formal guidelines – by individuals in Hopkins Hall. Even the established procedures, such as the grievance committee, are given little more than perfunctory consideration. That body is untrained, unused and unknown. While some latitude and discretion in disciplinary structure is reasonable, it is unreasonable that the current system allows the discipline handed down for a given incident to vary so much from dean to dean.

The College’s published “Standards of Conduct” states that “accepting membership in this community entails an obligation to behave with courtesy to others whose beliefs and behaviors differ from one’s own; all members and guests of this community must be free of disturbance and harassment, including racial and sexual harassment.” The pact against indifference was the first attempt to make these words a reality, but it is only the beginning of a long process of self-improvement. A Social Honor Code, however the student body chooses to design it, would establish a standard of inclusion and respect within our community. It would extend far beyond the current controversy and the issue of racism to address violence, vandalism and other forms of disrespect.

This process must be initiated and led by the student body. However, we cannot do this alone. Our school’s history shows that the support of the administration is necessary but far from sufficient. This call to action is not about resolving the situation at hand and moving on. It is about making lasting change to ensure that future students do not have to start this process from scratch every several years. To achieve that objective, every constituency on campus must buy into the plan for change.

We are not asking for a new speech or behavior code. Whether or not this community decides to implement a Social Honor Code, students at Williams will be barred – under the threat of punishment or dismissal – from doing things such as physically assaulting their peers or directing racial slurs at fellow students. A Social Honor Code would not change what students are and are not allowed to do on campus. That is already well established. The purpose of a Social Honor Code is to demonstrate that the student body expects a high level of social conduct from all of its members, ensure consistency in the responses to social conduct incidents and empower the student body to police itself. The existing discipline and reaction protocols generate a structure that is arbitrary and capricious.

We do not pretend to have the full solution or intend to force an already conceived system on the student body. Instead, we propose that students, faculty and the administration work together to explore these issues and propose solutions to the entire community. To achieve that goal, we want a committee of our peers, professors and administrators to review the structures we have on paper, analyze the way current and prior administrations have reacted to such incidents, examine the policies and structures used by other institutions, explicitly write down our community standards and propose objective ways for the student body to police itself. This process must be completely transparent and inclusive of our entire community. Most importantly, a system should not be implemented without the consent of the vast majority of the student body.

We cannot expect this process to be easy or quick. Substantive progress comes from honest self-reflection, detailed analysis and initiative for change. It is time to start the process. We need a Social Honor Code.

Haydee Lindo ’08 is a math and political science major from St. James, Jamaica. Peter Nurnberg ’09 is a math and economics major from New York, N.Y.

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