With Rising Caseload, Honor Council Members Struggle to Balance Duties with Academics

In late January, former Honor Council co-chair Ryan Baxter-King ‘16 sent an email to students explaining the reasons behind his resignation from Honor Council.

“By only deciding to resign now, as opposed to last semester, I worry that I have hurt the system and the community I care about,” he wrote. “However, in addition to any and all external responsibilities, every student at Haverford has a responsibility to themselves as well. We are, after all, primarily students.”

A month earlier, co-chair Brian Guggenheimer resigned citing similar reasons. At that time, Baxter-King and Guggenheimer revealed a number of different issues that Honor Council has been facing, mainly having to do with the sharp rise in the number of violations.  Several years ago, the Council only held three to five trials a semester. Now, the number is closer to 10 or more.

While the email detailed the impact that this has had the Council’s process—namely on the number of backlogged abstracts, around three years—it didn’t discuss the impact this has had on Council members themselves. The co-chairs have generally borne the brunt of it.

Baxter-King and Guggenheimer described the stress and duties of the position as amounting to a full-time work position, often consuming 40 hours a week or more.

“This is a job that at most schools a full-time dean is paid to do,” said Guggenheimer.

“A good week was 20 hours, a bad week was 40 plus,” Baxter-King added.

The work of Honor Council, and the role of co-secretary, spans a broad range of activities: planning, organizing, and leading Council meetings and trials, outreach, writing abstracts, and more. Who should complete these duties is a matter of debate and not always dictated by Honor Council’s constitution. Many procedures are instead based on “chamber rules,” traditions passed down year-to-year.

According to Baxter-King, the result of this ambiguity has resulted in the bulk of the commitment falling on co-chairs.

“When we became co-chairs, the chairs did everything,” Baxter-King said.

Improving efficiency is at the heart of Council’s issues. This semester’s new co-chairs, Karina Wiener and Michaela Novakovic, have named this as one of their top priorities.

Wiener and Novakovic felt that this would not require substantial changes to the Constitution itself.

“I don’t really think that we need an overhaul, per say, because all of the things that we have now work perfectly fine, we just need to expand and allow more room for exceptions, more things, more options,” Wiener said.

However, Baxter-King and Guggenheimer suggested that larger changes to the Constitution might be an important part of moving forward. One aspect of this is just discerning between what the Constitution actually says and what are just the traditions passed down through Council history–the chamber rules. As Council has become busier and busier, figuring out the difference can mean a lot of time saved.

“We have tried to identify as many instances as we could where we were doing something just because we had always done it and not because it was necessary,” Guggenheimer said. “At the same time, we were always cautious when changing these traditions. There is a delicate balance between efficiency and doing things right.”

President Dan Weiss, who spoke to both Guggenheimer and Baxter-King on a regular basis in the fall semester, suggests that Honor Council may need more substantial changes.

“Little fixes may not be what’s necessary. Maybe what we need to do is look more systematically at it,” Weiss said. “Case load is up, the amount of work that students do is increasing, for all kinds of reasons that are legitimate, but as a result, we want to make sure that we’re in balance around all of those things. And maybe that’s going to require a bigger project than a [Clearness] Committee.”

The Clearness Committee is partially tasked with examining Honor Council, as part of a systematic examination of all of the college’s practices. Weiss described Clearness Committee as the first step to diagnosing the problem.

In the mean time, many different people are working on ways to improve Honor Council. Some ideas that came up repeatedly included increased support from College administration, changes to trial procedure, and Honor Council election timing.

At Sunday’s Plenary, several current and former Honor Council members, including Wiener and Novakovic, presented a resolution aimed at streamlining procedure and removing time-consuming barriers to completing the actual work of the Council.

After meeting with Weiss, Guggenheimer and Baxter-King piloted a position for a student assistant to Honor Council. Janela Harris ‘14 is currently paid to perform all of the tasks that the co-chairs and co-secretaries aren’t required to do.

The second resolution passed at Sunday’s Plenary formalized the student assistant position, stipulating that the assistant will perform “non-critical responsibilities” such as printing for meetings, assembling juries and reserving rooms. The staff support member can be a previous member of the Council, a graduate assistant, or someone appointed by the co-chairs.

Weiss said that while he respects the student-led nature of Honor Council, it would not be “responsible for the administration to sit back and struggle and not want to be helpful.”

“So we’ve agreed that we can help with resources, for sure. Anything anybody else should do, should be done by other people and not by students. We should not be making students do things that are time-consuming and administratively a burden, because your time is better off spent doing other things,” he said.

Another important change could be abstract procedure.

“Abstracts in the [1970s] were a page, maybe a paragraph. In the 90s they started getting longer and including every step of the trial, every conversation. It’s cool and good for the community, and it’s nice to read some of those before you get onto council to know what’s it like, but it’s just not worth it for the time,” Guggenheimer said.

“We want to get out more abstracts, because there are backlogs of like three years,” Novakovic said. “That’s just not okay.”

One major reform idea was to use a system already used at Bryn Mawr, where instead of sending all violations to trial, more straightforward cases would instead go to a hearing. For instance, at the present, even if a student is accused of cheating and admits to cheating, Honor Council must still schedule time for fact-finding and other procedures. Under the new system, the case could go immediately to hearing.

Wiener and Novakovic also expressed frustration with Council’s election timing.

“One of the big parts for me is that it’s unclear when terms start and end,” Wiener said. “So, for example, before next week, before the new council is elected, there’s sort of no council. This is after finals weeks, it’s prime time to get things done, so I’d like to find a way to make that more clear, that there will always be a council.”

The resolution passed Sunday also addresses this discrepancy, adding additional language so that terms continue until a member’s successor is elected.

 

Another suggestion has been to pay Honor Council members, which could make the position more feasible for students and for students on financial aid. While the Deans’ Office is providing funding for only two Honor Council positions, many students have suggested all Honor Council members should be paid for their work.

Guggenheimer felt that the position shouldn’t be paid.

“Yes, it’s a full time job, and yes it’s for the college, so there is an argument for being paid, but at the same time, financial compensation could change the nature of the job,” Guggenheimer said. “There is something really powerful about Co-chairs being volunteers.”

As to why there has been such a major increase in cases, Guggenheimer, Baxter-King, and Weiss suggested easy access to sources on the Internet and increased pressure on students, as well as Haverford’s place in the “apathy cycle,” as Baxter-King put it. Unlike the early days of Honor Council, most students these days are reported by professors. Few turn themselves in.

“It’s a very different thing to sit down with a pen and copy a passage out of the world book encyclopedia, which you’ve never heard of. When I was growing up that’s what plagiarism was,” Weiss said. “You have no intention to be a cheater. These things happen a lot. It doesn’t mean you’re a criminal.”

Weiss also commented on the pressure Haverford students feel.

“There’s so much societal pressure on high-performing young people today that we see one consequence we see in that is exponential increases in the amount of time students need with counselors.”

In the end, however, the reason for the peak is still unclear.

“The short answer is that we don’t know,” Baxter-King said.

 

In considering changes to Honor Council, most students advocated caution. The current system represents the work of so many past students, from those who were involved in Council directly and students who voted at Plenary.

“Being on Honor Council was by far one of the most meaningful and formative aspects of my time at Haverford,” Emily Dix, co-chair from 2010-2011, said. “I think that much of what made Honor Council challenging was also what made it worthwhile.”

Any changes, and certainly a major overhaul, would matter not only to the students attending Haverford now, but to alumni as well.

“I can’t tell you the number of people who said that being part of that process or in that community was the making of them as a person, in ways that you cannot know until 20 years from now,” Weiss said. “It’s not just how you feel about it, or your classmates feel about it. You’re stewards of a tradition and a value system that you must protect for the benefit of the institution. I can’t do that. The students have to do that.”

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