The value of increased participation

November 11, 2015 by Jonathon Burne, Marcus Christian and Tyrone Scafe

On Oct. 28, the College Council (CC) Vice President for Community and Diversity Jonathon Burne ’17 led a discussion about a pending Honor System reform in the week’s general council meeting. Echoing a Record article published last semester by the outgoing Honor and Discipline Committee (HDC) chairs (“On being honor bound,” May 13, 2015) he explained that the reform aims to re-emphasize the responsibility that each student has to hold each other accountable for academic integrity.

The resolution calls for a restructuring of the HDC to allow for a “jury of peers” system; in addition to the eight standing members elected by the student body, there would be an additional four students randomly selected from each class year. These four students would have the same rights as the standing members for the single case over which they were nominated to preside as a voting member, and would be subject to the same expectations of confidentiality. However, the crux of this system lies in the maxim: “Share the knowledge, not the details.” This means that students who had served on the committee as a “juror” would share the knowledge of how the HDC process works, with the hope that this increased transparency would encourage more engagement and accountability with the Honor Code. Along with this increased transparency, the ultimate goal of this reform would be to reduce the number of Honor Code infractions.

Given the heightened frequency of violations – there were 45 cases last year in contrast to 13 cases in the 2011-12 academic year – we might expect the new HDC to reach well over 10 percent of campus each year, many of whom will go on to discuss their experiences with their peers. Exposing this many students to the process will enhance the Honor Code’s profile on campus. That seems like a great way to strengthen an institution that, in our experience, does not have a strong presence at the College.

The representatives at the meeting seemed excited about the proposal but had some concerns. Multiplying the number of jurors privy to sensitive information while encouraging them to educate their peers about the HDC increases the likelihood of a breach. A new provision requiring all student members to sign non-disclosure forms could mitigate this risk but would be hard to enforce. At the end of the day, there will be a tradeoff between deflecting a possible blow to confidentiality and improving our community standards on academic honesty.

Second, there were questions surrounding widespread campus voting apathy. In order for this resolution to pass, a vote is required that solicits participation from two-thirds of the student body, where a two-thirds majority votes in favor of passing the resolution. For this reason, voting apathy appears to be the most prominent obstacle to this resolution materializing. For example, this year’s fall CC elections produced 571 total votes of the roughly 2000 possible votes. This number falls well below the required two-thirds participation necessary for an Honor Code amendment. However, just last spring, 62 percent of the student body voted on the Divestment Referendum, which passed with a 71 percent majority. As a result, the push to divest the endowment from fossil fuels is currently being discussed by the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, the Board of Trustees and the wider campus in general. We would argue that in the face of worthwhile issues, the student body is willing to mobilize and participate in the political process by voting. When our interests are at play, we show up to vote and determine the future of our community.

The Preamble of the Statement of Academic Honesty states: “As an institution fundamentally concerned with the free exchange of ideas, Williams College has always depended on the academic integrity of each of its members. In the spirit of this free exchange, the students and faculty of Williams recognize the necessity and accept the responsibility for academic honesty.” Recognizing the framing of the College in this manner, students created the Honor System to serve the students, and it ultimately has our interests in mind. Only students at the College can amend the Honor Code, and as such, only student members of the HDC can vote on cases. It is up to us to implement any changes to the Honor System that we deem necessary. The rising number of HDC cases is a cause of concern and can be attributed to a host of factors, but general ignorance of the expectations of the Honor Code seems to be driving the rise of cases in the past few years. The “8+4” amendment is a hybrid solution to the problem because it proposes to educate students about the Honor Code and democratize hearings while preserving a core group of permanent members who are knowledgeable about the process. On balance, the proposal at hand presents an attractive improvement to the existing Honor Code while also upholding the spirit of the free exchange of ideas at this institution.

This new “8+4” amendment would require widespread student interest and involvement. The conversations surrounding the Honor Code are burgeoning from interested parties and groups, but the College’s commitment to the Honor Code requires expanded student vigilance and involvement. This “8+4” resolution in its final form will require a supermajority of the campus to vote and to vote in favor of this resolution. As this conversation surrounding the “8+4” resolution begins to pick up steam, we urge the student body to stay informed and join the larger campus discussion surrounding our Honor System.

Jonathon Burne ’17 is a political science and Arabic studies double major from Los Angeles, Calif. He lives in Lehman. Marcus Christian ’16 is an English major from Miami, Fla. He lives in Perry. Tyrone Scafe ’17 is a political science and American studies double major from Waukegan, Ill. He lives in Sage.

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