At College, Honor Code Is Focus Of This Scandal Haverford Students Try Cases Of Cheating And Such. Results Are Released Using Fake Names. Some Say A Recent Case Has Been Hushed Up Even Further.

Posted: February 07, 1999

HAVERFORD — Kramer and Elaine shared their physics homework. Rhett left a dirty message on Scarlett's answering machine. Madonna was spied using a cheat sheet by The Professor Formerly Known as Prince.

And no one is quite sure what happened between Obi-Wan and Yoda.

All real cases - the names, of course, changed to protect the innocent (and guilty) - taken from the annals of the Haverford College honor council, the student body charged with investigating and trying transgressions against the school's honor code.

For more than a century, the code has been a central part of campus life at the 1,100-student Quaker college: Don't lie. Don't cheat. Don't steal. Don't discuss the ``form, content or degree of difficulty'' of your tests. Treat others with respect.

And if there is something undeniably collegiate about the way that, in the council's account of its work, solemn questions of character, morality, crime and punishment slip seamlessly into silliness (``the jury was saddened to hear that one of the jurors, Meatloaf, would not be able to rejoin the trial due to personal reasons . . .''), Haverford students say they take the code, and the council, very seriously.

Seriously enough that the honor council spent much of last semester battling old criticisms: that the council is too secretive and too unaccountable, and favors some students over others.

After the council disclosed in November that ``long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away,'' it had secretly decided not to release a summary of the now-infamous ``Star Wars'' case to the student body, as called for in the code, hundreds of students packed three forums, looking for an explanation.

Strict rules of confidentiality kept council members from addressing a widespread belief that the defendant in the case was a former honor council chairman who resigned after publicly admitting an academic violation of the code.

By the time the furor abated, current members of the honor council had accused past members of violating the honor code by suppressing the document to protect one of their own. A group of students had marched into an honor council meeting and accused the current board members of violating the code. And the college's student newspaper, calling the council ``a crippled body which has lost its mandate,'' had demanded that all its members resign.

``People at Haverford, one of the few things they get fired up about is issues of the honor code,'' said Sasha Rieders, a junior who covered the story for the Bi-College News, the weekly newspaper that covers both Haverford and nearby Bryn Mawr College. ``It's something that relates to [their] morals, and probably the reasons they originally came to Haverford.''

``It's really the centerpiece at Haverford,'' said Stephen Cary, a 1937 graduate and former vice president of the college who still lives across the street. Students sign a copy of the code at orientation, and the council - which can suspend students, if necessary - regularly distributes abstracts summarizing cases to the entire student body.

The system dates to 1897, when the freshman class petitioned college president Issac Sharpless ``to have examinations held on an honor basis and to have entire control in managing any possible cases of cheating.'' The request was granted on an experimental basis and institutionalized a few years later.

In the 1940s, the code was expanded to cover social offenses - such as drinking, failure to attend meeting, or, for the all-male student body, ``any act of commission or omission'' with a woman visitor.

Those standards have changed with the times. Recent social cases have involved allegations of sexual harassment, offensive speech, and even stealing meals from the dining hall. In the famous ``Charlie'' case, a student was accused of breaking the code by posting a message on a public bulletin board that said minority students were given unfair preference in the admissions process. Another student was charged with insensitivity toward gays and lesbians after he broke a beer bottle on a pink triangle painted on the sidewalk.

If standards of conduct have changed, however, the procedures of the honor council, rooted in the Quaker tradition, remain largely the same. Cases are lodged through the ritual of ``confronting,'' in which the accuser approaches the accused and explains the reasons for the complaint. The council does not vote but reaches its decisions by consensus.

Trial juries are made up of six of the honor council's 16 members, and six students chosen at random from a list (three of those students, the code states, must be minorities). All deliberations are secret, and a decision cannot be rendered if any more than two members of a 12-member jury refuse to drop their objections.

Punishments usually involve writing letters to the offended parties and community, downward revision of grades, and occasionally suspension, or ``separation from the community,'' in council parlance.

Allegiance to the code runs deep. Students sometimes turn themselves in for minor violations, such as discussing a test with a fellow student, and it is not uncommon for graduates wracked with guilt to come back years later to confess. In one 1993 case, ``Bart'' turned himself in for looking up the answer to one section of a problem on a test during his freshman year. As he had already completed a graduate degree, the council decided not to force him to retake the test.

``When you go out on the alumni circuit,'' Cary said, ``they all talk about the honor code and its importance in their lives.''

So it is easy to understand why, when the honor council disclosed in its November ``Star Wars'' letter that the council had been ``faced with a decision in which it was forced to violate the honor code,'' it struck such a nerve.

On its face, the case was relatively simple. A student committed an academic violation and was brought to trial. The results of that proceeding have never been disclosed, despite a prohibition in the code against withholding abstracts for more than a year.

``The act committed by Obi-Wan and Yoda was so singular in nature that any mention of it would reveal their identity,'' the letter said. ``The resolutions also pointed directly to their Jedi abilities.''

The debate within the council over releasing the abstract was so polarizing that the council did the unthinkable - it settled the issue with a vote.

Many members of the current honor council, who are elected on a yearly basis, did not even know about the trial until members of the student body - who recalled the council chairman's resignation - inquired about the abstract.

In a subsequent letter, titled ``The Empire Strikes Back,'' the council disclosed that some current and former members of the council ``had personal ties'' to Obi-Wan and Yoda, and could not determine whether those relationships had resulted in preferential treatment.

A final letter, ``Return of the Jedi,'' stated that the abstract would not be released until both students, who have not yet graduated, ``have left the galaxy.''

When that happened, a group of three seniors confronted the council at a public meeting, accusing it of violating the honor code.

Those accusations were eventually resolved, avoiding the complicated prospect of putting the honor council on trial before itself.

Though the ruckus has calmed down some since the intervention of winter break, the issues raised by the ``Star Wars'' letter continue to reverberate, said honor council member Ben Huebner, a sophomore. In elections going on right now, several council candidates are running on a platform of scaling back the confidentiality restrictions. Similar proposals will likely be raised at plenary, the student body's yearly plebiscite.

``I think there's going to be great rethinking of what exactly confidentiality is, and what its role is at Haverford, because there is great frustration both in the community and on the part of the honor council,'' Huebner said.

Meanwhile, he said, the council is working on the latest installment in the ``Star Wars'' series, a ``super-abstract'' that will detail the entire case for posterity. Its working title: ``The Phantom Menace.''

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