As a part of The Clerk’s series on transparency at Haverford, I sat down with the two student’s tasked with running Honor Council. Honor Council is one of the most consequential student representative bodies at Haverford, given the confidential nature of their affairs and that they are tasked with dealing with violations of the code. I wanted to ask not just about what their jobs entail, but how they manage as students given the great responsibilities they are charged with. I think most students will be surprised by the power Honor Council affords to the student body, and how the Co-Chairs feel about the challenges they face in this role balancing confidentiality and transparency.
Could you please describe what Honor Council is and what your roles as Co-Chairs are?
Arlene Casey ‘19: Honor Council is a student governance body that deals with all issues relating to the honor code, so basically that means our biggest job tends to be running trials where there are instances of potential violations of the Honor Code, but we also do a lot of community outreach and education work. As Co-Chairs, our responsibility is to run all of the council meetings, keep check on all of our subcommittees, in pretty much every instance one of us will chair every trial that we have.
You run weekly meetings, right?
Joseph Spir ‘20: Yes we run weekly meetings, Sunday, 5-8. We also have meetings related to trials, that usually happen on a weeknight.
So a weekly meeting is not necessarily about a trial?
Arlene: No, so in our weekly meetings we’ll do updates on any trials that are going on or have ended since our last meeting… our committees will give an update… We review statements from parties that might be sent to trial, we decide whether they are going to trial or not, and we consent to release abstracts.
Can you describe how consensus works in meetings?
Arlene: Yeah, so we have speak from silence discussions… we have framing questions like, “Do we suspect a violation, is a trial the best answer to that if the suspicion is there?” And people will share their thoughts, and we will try to reach a decision that meets the weight of the room. Not everyone has to agree that the decision is the best one, but it is one that we can all get behind. We will have an option for someone to stand outside consensus if they personally feel like they can’t get behind the decision but feel that it is a decision that should go forward.
Joe: If they feel that a voice has not been heard or they feel just morally wrong, they can just block a consenting process. We just continue talking until we reach a decision that is good for everyone.
There are decisions you can come to that are intermediary between doing nothing and having a trial?
Arlene: Yeah, so the constitution is a little vague on that so that also ends up being another discussion about like “What are we allowed to do?” Yeah, so sometimes we will officially drop a case but we will ask the parties to participate in a mediation, or do some optional resolutions, or what we can mandate outside the trial, but yeah we do have some in-between options that we use.
So this interview is part of a series The Clerk is doing on Students’ Council transparency. If you could categorize the types of trials that you see over the course of a semester? Can you say roughly how many of each type you see?
Joe: I think the majority we see is academic, many of them being plagiarism cases, especially when you get to finals week or midterms week, but generally it is academic, and since the creation of the Multicultural Liaisons last year, our social cases have dropped that have been sent to Honor Council, because they would rather solve it through mediation. So I’d say about eighty percent of our cases.
Arlene: I would say ninety percent are academic, but we also run ten to twelve trials a semester, but that can vary. That is kind of the average. Maybe one social case a year. In the past couple of years, we have had a couple of mediations. Under the way things currently work, we don’t release anything to the community about that. We’re hoping going forward that we can release abstracts about that, just so people know more about those situations.
Do the Multicultural Liaisons have contact with you?
Joe: So we do have contact with them, but the way things currently run, whenever they are doing mediation, they contact us-
Arlene: Not necessarily. They don’t have to tell us about anything they’re doing, we often will clue them in if we are running a trial that involves identity, sometimes we have done joint mediations, but for the most part we don’t know the details of anything they see, cause it’s pretty confidential.
What is the usual duration of a trial, of the academic honor code?
Joe: It depends. We like to say that the average is a span of ten hours over two weeks, but it can definitely go longer.
Arlene: I have been on trials that have gone on for like twenty hours, and I have been on some that have been over super quickly.
Joe: It depends on the various factors like what kind of jury we have, what are the details of the case.
So let’s clear something up here. The administration does not participate in Honor Council trials at all, right?
Arlene: We have one type of trial that involves the administration, which is called a joint-student-administrative panel. Academic cases never go to that, the only thing that would go to that are social cases where there is some legality at play. For instance, we had one two years ago where a student was harassing campus safety officers, and we sent that to a joint panel because staff members were involved. That panel has, I believe, two deans, and four students.
Arlene: Then the only other way administration plays a role is Dean [Martha] Denney meets with the exec board once a week, to just update her on cases that are going on, and get her advice on things that we’re unfamiliar with, but we are not bound to follow anything she says. It’s an advising role.
Joe: Another voice.
If you deem separation to be necessary, do you have to get permission from someone in the administration before that can happen?
Arlene: No, not here. If it’s a Bryn Mawr student, Bryn Mawr has to approve that, and parties have the option to appeal to Kim Benston. Then [Benston] would meet with the student, members of the jury, review the case, and would decide whether to uphold that resolution. But that is only in the case that they appeal.
Does that happen often?
Arlene: Not particularly often-
Joe: I’d say with separation it does.
Arlene: More often with separation… Last semester we had one appeal, and I’d say that is pretty typical.
Is it difficulty to balance the confidentiality of this process with accountability to the students?
Joe: I think it’s a difficult balance, but we always try to balance confidentiality and the right of the community to know. It’s why we have abstracts, so that only the jury know the identities of the parties. I think since we are such a small community, it is even more difficult to balance that because the degree of separation is very tiny here. So, I would say yes.
Arlene: I feel like, with most trials I have been a part of, I have never felt that accountability was lacking because people didn’t know who they were. I think most people who come to the process come willing to work with us, and take accountability for their actions, and want to rectify what was done. There were a couple instances where something was particularly egregious, and I definitely struggled with the fact that no one knows who this person is, and I definitely feel weird about that, but I think if we’re doing a good job as a jury, then these resolutions will make it that the community doesn’t need to know. That person can re-enter the community being fully restored.
Arlene Casey ’19, one of the Honor Council Co-Chairs
I’m reading section 3.07 of the Honor Code when it deals with confidentiality, and it says, “One way of maintaining this balance is through pseudonymised abstracts of trial proceedings.” Is there any other way?
Arlene: I’d say the abstracts are the main way of informing students about trials, having discussions about them is another way to let the juries offer more nuance to the community who might be interested, we publish some statistics about the demographics of our trials. Other than that, we try to have more community outreach events, where students can come talk about issues they have with the honor code, bring Honor Council members out so we can have those discussions.
Do you personally ever feel frustrated with the way Honor Council trials are run?
Arlene: That’s a good question [laughs].
Joe: Obviously, everyone has their own way of thinking, and sometimes you have to deal with the weight of the room, and reach a point of common ground. It’s frustrating to be Honor Council Co-Chair and know everything not just with our case but with everyone’s cases and not being able to have a say in other cases or not reach a conclusion that you had hoped for. I feel like that doesn’t happen very often because juries reach conclusions after a lot of debate…but it is often frustrating not being able to participate in all of the cases.
Arlene: I guess for me, I have lots of moments of frustration, sometimes like “why can’t we come to a decision, why can’t we agree,” but for the most part I generally have a pretty strong belief in our process, and that those frustrations are just temporary. I think I also find, like, I feel like often our structures for social situations don’t work so well, and that’s been expanded with the creation of the MCLs, but I feel like [social trials] involve more feelings than academic cases do. I think the hardest part of the job is like, it’s hard to know all of this information and not be able to talk about it. We have really difficult cases sometimes, and like not being able to go to friends in the community and talk about what it is that is like eating at me and absorbing my life for two weeks, and of course I have support within Honor Council, but it’s like sometimes I have cases where it’s hard to not talk about it, because it’s on my mind so much.
Have you also felt this way, Joe?
Joe: Yeah, definitely. And I feel like, when one knows about so many cases, it is helpful to talk about it with members and the exec board, but it’s like, super stressful not to be able to talk about it with your friends or anyone in the community, but it’s totally understandable… it’s amazing that we have five people we can talk to, but it’s like we only have five people we can talk to, and the rest is like, “It’s Honor Council, you know, it’s stressful”… you can’t go into detail about it.
Joe Spir ’20, one of the HC Co-Chairs
How would you address students who are skeptical that people our age can accurately run trials where issues that are so volatile in our country (racism, sexism, other forms of bigotry) and deliver resolutions?
Arlene: I agree that it’s really hard, and I have never been [a juror] on a social trial, but all the ones I have heard about have not gone particularly well. They have involved a lot of hurt feelings, and it’s hard to meet everyone’s needs in that situation, and kind of impossible to a certain extent, and like, yeah, I think we’re really ill-equipped to deal with those things, especially given the way things are, and I think it’s important that we keep trying and try to make our processes better, being more open and communicative in discussions. It’s a constant battle to make that work, and our process certainly isn’t perfect, and we’re always open to changing it and making it better.
Joe: Since we’re not like an investigative body, we just go solely on what is presented to us, and we try to make a decision based on that. Yeah, it is really hard to make that decision. A couple statements, what people tell us in fact-finding, yeah it’s very difficult in a social trial, but I feel it’s a matter of dialogue and conversation, and reaching a point where the decision that we make, is restorative to both parties, and that it’s for the betterment of the community. We definitely try our best, and it’s not a perfect institution.
Do you ever wish you had another tool at your disposal that would make your job easier? Is there anything that could make your job easier?
Joe: I don’t know. I feel like I would not want to be an investigative body, you know like, have the power to have so much evidence… like cameras or something… because it would put too much power on students that are considered equals. I see myself, as a Co-Chair, as just the facilitator of a discussion. We try to work with both parties, and reach the best resolution for everyone, and the moment it becomes investigative, it just gives us that power that separates us from all students.
If you wanted to explain Honor Council to a student in a couple of sentences, and why you think it’s a good institution, how would you describe it?
Arlene: I would say that Honor Council is a group of students who are charged with dealing with the issues of the Honor Code in a variety of ways. What I think is really good about it is that it incorporates student voice, and it gives a lot of autonomy to students, our trial process allows for us to hear both sides of every story, both in terms of facts and circumstances. My favorite thing about Honor Council and the way we run things is that we take each case on its own merit, and deal with it in the best way for the people involved and for the community as a whole. I think it’s cool that we don’t have standard punishments that we’re just doling out for specific situations. I think it allows for community engagement and restoration in a really positive way.
Joe: I would like to highlight the fact that we have this restorative justice process. We’re not a punitive system. We try to create the best outcome for every situation. Sometimes it’s separation, but I do feel we try our best to bring… It’s an amazing opportunity for students to be involved in this restorative justice process and, if I had known about it, I would have run for Honor Council first semester my freshman year because it’s an amazing opportunity that not a lot of people get. More people should do it.
While there many parts of the conversation that resonated with me, the answers the chairs gave about social trials were most intriguing to me. First, that only ten percent of trials in Honor Council suggests to me that are many indirect ways that offenses against the social code are not taken to council. Unlike violations of the academic honor code, there aren’t neutral people like professors to scrutinize what students are doing on campus. We are in charge to police ourselves, and that can raise conflicts of interest. If it’s our peers, classmates, and friends who are doing objectionable things, we might play things down or excuse them for the sake of not ruffling feathers. I would add that the fact that the multicultural liaisons do not have to coordinate with Honor Council virtually at all raises questions about how they are exercising their authority handling potential violations of the social code. I am not trying to cast aspersions upon the current Multicultural Liaisons, but they are being given a great deal of discretion and have no explicit mechanism that they are accountable to. Perhaps there could be more coordination between the liaisons and the council. Additionally, if the Multicultural liaisons could provide periodical status updates that could be released to the student body like abstracts. This would ensure that there is some amount of accountability and would be more transparent for the student body.