It was a harsh Vermont winter in December 1963 and, in the midst of the subzero temperatures, a landmark student life initiative had also frozen over. “The ‘question of honor’ at Middlebury College seems to have plenty of support as an ideal and not so much as a working system,” read a December 5 front-page Campus article. The article, which included student concerns about a code’s implications, foreshadowed the proposed Honor Code’s defeat in a student vote for the second time that May.
Over the past year, the Campus has investigated the untold story of the creation of the Honor Code. Although the story of the origins of the Honor Code at Middlebury is often that of a system fashioned by students and for students, the historical picture is much murkier.
A lengthy search in the College Archives and interviews with those who witnessed the process firsthand reveal that the Honor Code had a slightly turbulent history from the start.
It was a story that dominated the early 1960s at the College: a group of students and administrators who saw the Honor Code as an important opportunity for students to take ownership over their education. And yet, they received surprisingly strong pushback from students on the language and specifics of the proposed code.
The code’s proponents even dropped a compulsory peer-reporting clause, a hallmark of honor systems at Princeton University and elsewhere, from the Middlebury Honor Code in order to ensure its passage via a student vote. Moreover, after two failed student referenda on the Honor Code, evidence found in the Archives shows that at least one administrator recommended enacting the Honor Code without a student vote of support. However, in March 1965 the Code received sufficient support in a student vote to pass. Faculty opted for a streamlined approval process to avoid sending the Honor Code back with revisions to be subject to another student referendum, which they thought could be tantamount to its defeat.
The question of student votes on the Honor Code has renewed relevance of late. On Sunday, the Student Government Association (SGA) Senate voted in favor of amending the Honor System’s Constitution to put the code to a biennial student referendum with the options to maintain, revise, or eliminate the Honor Code. The amendment now must receive 2/3 of the vote in a referendum in which 2/3 the student body votes and must also be ratified by the faculty.
Change in the Air
Middlebury’s academic Honor Code, far from a lone initiative, was the product of social changes on campus that created profound shifts in student life during the 1960s. The College of the 1930s-50s was on its way out in several ways that precipitated the creation of an Honor Code.
Historians of the College have written much about the changes that took place in the 1960s. Among these reforms were major social changes to the institutional rules surrounding student freedoms. The influential Dean of Women Elizabeth ‘Ma’ Kelly oversaw a period in the ’60s when the ground shifted under students’ feet regarding their freedoms and rights as young men and women.
In the ’60s, parietal hours — the now seemingly antediluvian rules that governed when men and women could visit opposite-sex dorms —were gradually phased out. The College began to offer help to students with questions about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. Finally, the fraternities and sororities, long the bastions of the social life of yesteryear, became less and less of a mainstay of the campus party scene.
Historian of the College David Stameshkin said the ’60s were a period of remarkable change, bar none.
“Students wanted to be treated as adults. The administration wanted to treat the students as adults in certain ways but not others,” Stameshkin said in an interview. “It was incredible how things changed in the time [James] Armstrong was President.”
These changes, taken together, amounted to a climate of dramatically increased student responsibility in social life. Naturally, this trend simultaneously made its way into the academic realm.
As discussions were underway about a potential code, the Campus polled 254 students in October 1962 and found 80 percent approved of a code in theory. The newspaper also polled students and found that 35 percent of those surveyed had experience with an honor system at their high school. However, “a majority indicated they would not speak directly to a student if they found him cheating.”
The first instance of bringing the Honor Code to a vote occurred on November 19, 1962, when it failed. Harold Freeman ’62, the Student Association (SA) President, informed the Campus that the vote to inaugurate an Honor Code was defeated, 623-512, a combination of students voting “no” as well as “No-with-Qualification.” 235 voted no, 388 voted no with qualification and 512 voted yes. The students in favor did not reach the 85 percent threshold of “Yes” to send the measure to the faculty for a vote.
However, Freeman gave hints that the fight for a code was not over. “Freeman observed that by adding together the Yes and No-with-Qualification votes, almost four-fifths of the students were in favor of at least some form of Honor Code,” reported the Campus. Nonetheless, it would not be easy to convince the students who voted No-with-Qualification.
The SA, in a postmortem, theorized that a main cause for the defeat was the clause requiring students to report observed violations. This clause was considered a hallmark of longstanding honor codes at universities, including Stanford and Princeton.
These qualms about the code reared their head repeatedly in the next two years. Surveys revealed approximately 80 percent of students supported an honor system as an ideal, but blanched at the proposal under consideration. “The main objection was to the obligation to report an offense committed by another person,” reported this newspaper.
Helen Gordon, president of the Panhellenic Council, “agreed that an honor code would be a benefit to Middlebury, but thought reworking of the ‘obligation’ clause necessary,” according to the Campus.
Gordon said, “It’s unrealistic to assume that human nature will [report others] but I don’t think they ought to leave out entirely this kind of an idea because it denies the opportunity to a person who’s really honest.”
The peer-reporting requirement would remain an issue through the end of the 1960s and beyond. As the clause became a sticking point in the debate, those in support of the Honor Code pushed back on the idea that peer-reporting meant “tattling” or being a “rat.”
In a December 1963 issue, Campus Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey J. Joseph opined that “whenever one brings up the subject of an Honor Code, the listener politely nods, makes a disparaging grimace, and quickly manages to say something like: ‘You going to the hockey game tomorrow night?’”
For all of the social life changes happening contemporaneously with the Honor Code debate, a large number of students felt comfortable enough with the status quo to stymie any efforts at instituting an honor system. Joseph explained that many students thought of the proposed Honor Code as either a way to end fraternities or to increase social code regulations and theorized that these factors led to its defeat.
“Let’s face it,” he wrote, “if someone wants to cheat, he cheats. If someone wants to ‘tell’ on him, he should be allowed to ‘tell.’ It is important to realize that a provision for ‘telling’ on someone is not included for the main purpose of making enemies out of friends. It is there to protect every honest student by presenting to the cheater a possibility that he will be caught. If you have any qualms about ‘telling’ on your buddy, keep your head down in your paper where it belongs.”
Despite the support of students like Joseph, the SA leadership began to contemplate foregoing the peer-reporting requirement. The Vice President of the SA was reportedly “willing to drop the stipulation that students report others, adding that ‘the maturity of Middlebury students ought to be able to make an honor code successful.’”
In December 1963, the chair of the student Honor Code Committee, Michael McCann ’65, cautioned against pushing the code too vigorously without almost unanimous student support. Two months later, the SA polled students on a potential honor code in what would be the run-up to a second push to pass it via a student body vote. A point of particular emphasis in the questionnaire was intended to gauge how students would feel about peer-reporting. The article stated that “McCann stresses the importance of questions dealing with student and faculty reports of offenders.”
The survey occurred concurrently with the 1964 election of a SA President, in which candidates weighed in on an honor code. Both John Walker ’65 and Peter Delfausse ’65 made an honor code a part of their platform.
Delfausse, who would win the election, said to a Campus reporter, “We on this campus are treated as adults in everything but the integrity of our academic work. Shouldn’t this be the first area in which we should be trusted? Nothing can force the student body into accepting something which isn’t wanted, but if an honor system is desired, we will find the right words with which to express it.”
Nevertheless, concurrent discussion about combating student apathy regarding the SA gives the impression that the Honor Code was an issue important to the members of its committee, but perhaps was less relevant to the wider student body. Richard Hawley ’67 was the Editor-in-Chief of the Campus, and said other issues captured the student body’s attention more than the Honor Code, particularly parietal hours — although he nonetheless appreciated the code when it was instated.
“I remember feeling a kind of relief,” Hawley said in an interview. “What a relief it was to take your exam to the library and do it there. I remember thinking, ‘This is wonderful.’ But I don’t remember student passion about it.”
Princeton on the Otter
Within the next few months, a figure who would be pivotal to Middlebury’s history weighed in on the code. College President James Armstrong, who had stepped into the position in 1963, approved of the proposed Honor Code in a meeting with McCann.
Armstrong said in a comment to the newspaper in April 1964, “Herding of students into the fieldhouse like animals, with proctors standing over them like jailkeeps, is not in keeping with the ideals of a liberal arts education.”
The influence of the college president and other key members of his administration may have been crucial to the Honor Code’s passage. Before arriving at Middlebury, Armstrong had spent his entire academic career at Princeton, an Ivy League school with one of the nation’s oldest academic honor codes — passed in 1893, with an obligatory peer-reporting clause. Armstrong earned his B.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton and then served as a faculty member and dean until he was appointed Middlebury’s 12th President.
“When Armstrong came as president from Princeton, he started bringing people from Princeton,” Stameshkin said in an interview. “In fact, the joke on campus was it was ‘Princeton on the Otter.’ That’s what they used to call Middlebury during the ’60s because Armstrong kept bringing people there.”
Another Princeton man, Dennis O’Brien was previously an assistant dean there before arriving at Middlebury in September 1965 to serve as the Dean of Men. His experience with the honor system at Princeton impacted his view of a potential Honor Code at Middlebury.
“Because myself and Jim came from Princeton, we had lived with it and we found it comfortable,” O’Brien told the Campus in a recent interview. “It seemed to establish a different relationship between faculty and students. Faculty were not always snooping over students’ shoulders to make sure they weren’t cheating; we were more like mentors. To suddenly switch over from being the person who is teaching someone to someone who is monitoring your honest behavior seemed not to be the image the faculty wanted to have.”
On top of a Princetonian as president, Middlebury’s stature as an institution was on the rise during the ’60s. O’Brien believes the Honor Code was part of the improvements.
“I think there was clearly a kind of an upgrade in terms of the quality of the students and the quality of the faculty that we were able to attract at that time,” he said, “and so it seemed like a much more senior, adult institution than one having proctored exams.”
The desire for an upgrade to Middlebury came from both above, with the administration, and also below, from students of the ’60s, particularly those who were tired of the fraternities’ hold on campus life.
“There was a genuine feeling that there should be more seriousness at the College intellectually,” Stameshkin said. “And the same thing was happening at Williams and other schools. This idea that there should be more intellectualism and more feeling of scholarship was also happening in the early to mid-60s.”
Nonetheless, the vocal support of Armstrong and O’Brien did not help the Honor Code at the ballot box at first. The proposed code failed in May 1964 to clear the 85 percent hurdle of students voting in favor, and the referendum did not receive even half of the student body’s participation. The result was devastating for those students who had worked tirelessly on behalf of a code.
“After two full years of preparation, an academic honor code was put before the student body Monday via a yes-or-no ballot – and failed to gain the needed support,” said a front-page article in the Campus. The measure received 69 percent “yes” votes from the 45 percent of the student body that voted. The rejected code included “that the test-taker pledge that he had neither given nor received aid” and that students report those they suspected of cheating within 48 hours.
The aforementioned Honor Code Committee displayed dogged, even stubborn, persistence to pass the measure. McCann told this newspaper, “This year’s balloting was far more encouraging than last year’s and there will be another honor committee next year trying to get this thing through.”
Victory, at a Cost
Despite McCann’s optimism, the outlook was grim: two votes and two defeats for an Honor Code within three years. But finally, in March 1965, the Honor Code was approved in a landslide. With 1,000 “yes” votes to 313 “no” votes, it was a marked improvement from the previous two tries in the fall of 1962 and the spring of 1964.
However, the code approved by students contained no compulsory peer-reporting clause such as that of Princeton, due to the fact that the committee viewed the clause as the reason for previous defeats. The Middlebury code stated that students with knowledge of an infraction should confront the student and if he or she does not report themselves to the honor board within 24 hours, the observer should. In O’Brien’s words, it was a passive reporting clause, with no teeth to punish a student who observes cheating and does not report it. The code that passed, unlike the previous versions, said students “should” report those they observed cheating, not “must” or “shall” of previous drafts.
The compulsory reporting clause had also been under fire in the opinions pages of this newspaper. In a Letter to the Editor on Feb. 25, 1965, William Michaels ’66 wrote: “Under the present system of exam proctoring, the College denies us the privilege of attempting to live up to the ideals of moral responsibility … this would also be the case if an honor code were passed which possessed a mandatory student reporting clause, since the student is not thus delegated the responsibility of looking after his own morality: it is merely shifted from the proctors to the other students.”
It was also a significant change that the threshold for victory was lowered to 75 percent from a lofty 85 percent, what it had been in 1962 and 1964. Some students grumbled about the idea of voting for an Honor Code for a third time, suggesting that other factors may have been at play in its success. A joke printed in the Campus poked fun at the code’s long-awaited victory. “Did you favor the Honor System at the recent election?” a student asks. His friend replies, “I sure did. I voted for it five times.”
President Armstrong was understandably pleased following the successful vote, as it was an initiative he had supported since the past spring, and he immediately set to work assigning administrators to it. In an October 1965 letter to the four members of the new subcommittee of the Faculty Administration Committee on the Honor Code, including Dean of Men O’Brien, Armstrong said, “Although I do not think you will be called upon for heavy duty quantitatively, I know you understand how important I believe the Honor Code is for the College and that a guiding hand from the faculty will be important and possibly crucial.”
Armstrong also probably worried that a lack of faculty support might end the last chance for the Honor Code to become a reality. He was present in a meeting of the Faculty Educational Policy Committee (EPC) in March 1965, after the code had been approved by the referendum.
“The honor code statement worked out by the students and brought to us with a large supporting student vote … was discussed,” states the meeting’s minutes. “It was felt best not to subject the statement to the scrupulous kind of inspection the EPC would normally employ in surveying a faculty document, but vote on it yea or nay as it stood; some felt that return of the document for a second student consideration and vote would defeat the proposal. Vote was a unanimous pro.”
It appears the EPC’s worries about the Honor Code failing in the student body led them to streamline its approval process, despite reservations that undoubtedly existed among the faculty.
The faculty also approved a key word choice in the code in April 1965. During the faculty meeting in which they approved the code, according to the article in the Campus, the faculty “did not demand a change to ‘must’” in the reporting clause.
Students Not Sold
There is a small piece of evidence that the College may have enacted an honor code regardless of the student vote. Dean of the College Thomas H. Reynolds wrote in his annual report dated July 1, 1964:
“There is an excellent chance that an almost unanimous student vote will be achieved next year. In the event that this kind of a program does not succeed next year, I recommend the College take some action towards bringing an academic honor system into effect.”
While Reynolds never ended up having to make that recommendation, O’Brien disagreed with his premise.
“I don’t think you should impose it without a successful student vote. I think that would have been a mistake to try to do that,” O’Brien told this reporter. “I think the whole idea of an honor code, to a certain extent, is to get away from the high school syndrome of, ‘You have to be proctored and not entirely trusted.’”
The following year, as new Dean of Men, Dennis O’Brien’s first annual report was pessimistic, illuminating the reasons why Reynolds or others might have pursued an Honor Code if the student body would not.
“By the time the student reaches the last half of his college career we have pretty much either got him involved intellectually or we have lost him for good … they may be active in fraternity life, extracurricular life, athletics, they may be valuable citizens in other ways, but academically they run along on minimal requirements seeking the gut courses and paying only lip service, if that, to the intellectual community,” wrote O’Brien in his annual report in June 1965.
He went on in that report to comment on the lackluster implementation of the Honor Code.
“The Honor Code was approved by students in early March,” O’Brien wrote. “I may have missed something, but I think no further initiative toward its implementation came from students until practically exam time, if then.”
O’Brien also observed how the administration was involved from the very beginning and that students were not yet invested in the code:
“Many students are far from ‘sold’ on the Honor Code. They feel that the Administration has been determined to have an Honor Code here no matter what and that the students finally let the Administration have its way. These students have a sort of uninvolved, ‘play it cool’ attitude. They intend to wait and see how ‘they’ will work it out. If students who felt that way could see the minutes of the Ad Hoc Committee on Honor Code for May 27, 1965 they would feel that their perception was largely confirmed. These minutes make it clear that the Honor Code Committee, chaired by the Dean of the College, consists of several professors and administrators and that to the meeting of this committee were ‘invited’ several specified undergraduates.”
O’Brien also cited a study from Columbia University that said for honor codes to be effective, the motivation should come from students and should appear to be coming from students. The difference between the honor codes at Princeton and Middlebury, he told this newspaper in October 1965, was not Princeton’s “obligatory clause for reporting, but a strong and firm belief in the system by faculty and students.”
Of the code, “it was held with a great deal of pride,” O’Brien said. “Most complaints of the new Middlebury system that I have heard have not been substantive, but procedural. And I think there are some false expectations about the system by a few students.”
A Reversal in Student Perception
Two years later in another report, O’Brien suggested that the honor code might have already backfired soon after its implementation.
“The Honor Code seems to be functioning well although there is still a certain amount of feeling against signing the pledge,” he wrote. “I personally feel that the distaste for the pledge grows out of a hypersensitivity on the part of students today that they are not trusted. As they are not trusted to close their dorm doors during parietal hours, so they feel they are not trusted in the matter of honor in examinations.”
This reversal in opinion was extraordinary. The push for the Honor Code, at least from students, was based on the idea that it would give the students more responsibility and was in the same spirit as a move away from parietal hours. Based on O’Brien’s report, the code had the opposite effect, making students feel like the administration trusted them less than before.
Whether the code was truly being followed is difficult to assess based on available records, but O’Brien writes that “a student was convicted of a violation of the Honor Code this year and suspended for a semester,” a low number of convictions by any standard.
Although during the 1960s the social rules at colleges and universities like Middlebury were being chipped away from all sides, it still took a great deal of effort on the part of members of the SA to pass an honor code via a student vote. Additionally, the faculty minutes and annual reports of the College show that at least one top member of the administration was ready to intervene to institute an honor code and held back probably because of concerns of its effectiveness if instated and operated by Old Chapel.
O’Brien’s 1967 assessment is revealing. There had been two unsuccessful votes from students amid vocal support from the administration and faculty; as a result, many students identified the Honor Code as an administrative device. A corollary explanation is that the social changes in the 1960s cut both ways on an honor system: while these sweeping changes helped make the code a possibility, they also changed the way a code was viewed in the years afterward. Increased freedom for students allowed them to pass the code; however, the perception of the code after 1965 was that it was an administrative measure — not a student-owned freedom.
“It’s very important that the students read the honor code as an administrative imposition as opposed to something that boiled up from the students,” Stameshkin said. “The students felt often as if the administration was kind of the enemy. They wanted to be adults and they felt the administration was treating them like children—you have to be in at this hour and all that — it wasn’t paranoia, but the students felt that way about a lot of things.”
The Campus reported in March 1968, three years after the code passed, that the student Honor Board was worried about the new system’s efficacy. The board had only heard six cases since 1965, and three of those were in the 1967-68 year. Two cases resulted in convictions, and only one of the six cases was because of a report submitted by another student. “This the board felt suggests either that only two students have cheated in the last three years, or that students have not accepted the responsibilities implicit in the system,” reported this newspaper.
The Honor Board, as a result, began to consider changing the constitution of the new Honor Code from passive acceptance of the code to hold responsible a student who did not report a violation.
A decade later, in January 1976, the student body approved by a landslide the revisions proposed by a committee on the honor system. There were dual changes: students now had a moral obligation to report cheating, moving away from the ambiguous language of the original code, and also proctors would be allowed in some cases with the specific authorization of the Judicial Review Board. Even under the best of circumstances, O’Brien said in a recent interview, getting students to report their peers may be asking too much.
“My guess is that [peer-reporting] never works terribly well, unless you’re in a highly codified organization like the military academy,” O’Brien said. “I’m not even so sure how well it worked at Princeton … it’s a nice thing to have: there’s a certain moral responsibility, and I love the idea of going up to somebody else and saying, ‘You shouldn’t have done that.’ But I suspect it doesn’t happen very often.”
It is difficult to assess whether the code cut down on cheating, as suggested by research that shows colleges with an honor code have less self-reported cheating by students. On that front, Emeritus Dean of Advising and Assistant Professor of American Studies Karl Lindholm ’67 said the Honor Code did not hurt and probably helped.
“I remember thinking it was a great idea. I don’t think there was any greater level of cheating than when the exams were tightly proctored,” Lindholm said. “It was almost a challenge to see if you could beat the system then,” with stories of notes written on hands and crib sheets hidden during an exam. “With unproctored exams, I don’t recall any greater level of cheating,” he said.
Approaching Another Vote
In a January survey by the SGA, 33 percent of the student body said they support the Honor Code in principle but that there need to be changes. 59 percent of the 1438 survey respondents said they support it in its current form and about 7 percent said they don’t support it.
Additionally, the Campus published (“Cheating: Hardly a Secret,” Oct. 30, 2013) the results of a survey by Craig Thompson ’14 for the course Economics of Sin where 35 percent of 377 students surveyed admitted to violating the Honor Code at least once in the 2012-13 academic year. 97 percent were not punished.
On Sunday, the discussion came to a head when the SGA Senate approved, in a nearly unanimous vote, the decision to move ahead with a bill that would subject the Honor Code to a biennial student referendum. Per the Honor System's Constitution, 2/3 of the student body must vote, and 2/3 vote in favor, for the change to take effect. The amendment would then need to be ratified by the faculty at large. If the amendment passes, a spring 2016 referendum would give students three options: to vote to maintain the honor code as it stands, to eliminate it or to revise it. A majority in favor of revision would cause the Honor Code committee to survey opinions during a two-week revision process. Students would then vote on the revised Honor Code to either approve it, to maintain the original code, or to eliminate the code.
Student Co-Chair of Community Council Ben Bogin ’15 was an impetus behind the SGA proposal and said fighting atrophy was a goal. “The idea behind our method is to encourage people to continue talking about the Honor Code after they sign it as a first-year,” Bogin wrote in an email. “The Honor Code only works if it’s a living, breathing document that people cherish and take seriously. We’re trying to breathe a little more life into it.”
SGA Director of Academic Affairs Cate Costley ’15 added that the idea is to reclaim the Honor Code as a document students care about and take ownership of.
“Through conversations and debates, we settled on a schoolwide vote to try to solicit the voices of our peers and to see what they think,” Costley said. “And having an edge to it with the possibility of eliminating the Honor Code is to say to people, ‘Let’s not take this document for granted.’”
Vice President for Student Affairs, Dean of the College and Assistant Professor of the History of Art and Architecture Katy Smith Abbott said she believes discussion has also been sparked by the decision in the Economics Department to proctor exams in introductory classes starting last spring.
“It’s not that proctoring hasn’t been an option for faculty — it has been — but it’s required a certain kind of approval process that most people thought was not necessary or wasn’t in the spirit of the Honor Code,” Smith Abbott said. “And I think when that decision was made (thoughtfully, and at great length) by the Economics Department, it meant that a larger number of students were being exposed to the question of whether the Honor Code is working.”
Smith Abbott also said that the code could possibly fail in a referendum, based on what she has heard from students.
“I think some of my lack of a firm sense of how it would go is based on the variety of opinions out there right now about whether or not the Honor Code is working,” she said. “I think if we have entered into a period where more students, through their own experience or inherited wisdom, think the Honor Code isn’t working, we could see it fail.”
Several on Community Council, according to Smith Abbott, have raised doubts about the wisdom of a biennial survey in which the Honor Code could be eliminated.
“I think a lot of folks on Community Council — and I have mixed feelings about this — felt that those are insurmountable odds that, if two years later, you have two classes of students who have never lived with an Honor Code,” Smith Abbott said. “What’s their investment in bringing it back? Why are we putting that on them by saying, ‘[An honor code] worked for some people and didn’t work for others, but it’s on you to decide to overwhelmingly vote it back into existence?’”
Bogin, however, said that that he is not worried about failure and that the discussion of the code’s relevance is worth having through a referendum.
“I think that it’s incredibly unlikely that the Honor Code would fail in a vote. According to our most recent student survey, in which about 60 percent of the student body voted, 92 percent supported the continued existence of the Honor Code,” Bogin wrote. “I also think that it’s important to say that if something isn’t working, and everybody agrees, we should be able to get rid of it. It’s hard to say that the Honor Code is student owned if students don’t have the power to get rid of it.”
Hawley, who was at Middlebury during the Honor Code debate, said renewed attention to the code is not a bad thing.
“I think the cycle of concern is probably the best thing, whatever the outcome, because it’s heightening student awareness of how it’s my responsibility to do my own work. I don’t think there’s anything that would prove that a certain kind of honor code produces more honor,” Hawley said. “It’s sort of what Jefferson said about the American Constitution: it should be revisited; there should be at least a thread of revolution every 20 years to keep attention fresh on what the values are. I think raising the climate of concern about it is probably the most important thing with respect to honor, not necessarily what code you have written down.”