Academic Honor Codes and Woke Adrenaline Junkies

Has American higher education reached peak woke? Alas, probably not, given that activists can find almost anything to protest. While it may be difficult to predict the next campus absurdity, let me suggest what may soon arrive: importing the anti-police, pro-crime movement into our colleges and universities. In fact, the first outcroppings of this movement have surfaced. The Washington Post in 2015 questioned the utility of honor codes, claiming they failed to work as advertised and only upset students (codes were called “outdated”). More recently, the College Fix reports that, in 2020, there were forty-three separate efforts to defund or disband the campus police. Portland State University has already disarmed its campus police.

This focus on the police may be, however, just the beginning. Why not dismantle the entire campus justice system? This is not as preposterous as it might seem, and the first clarion call has already appeared at Princeton University.

A recent article in the school’s newspaper by Emilly Santos, a prospective physics major who is also pursuing certificates in gender & sexuality studies and Portuguese language & cultures, draws close parallels between the defund-the-police movement and academic honor codes. After cataloguing the familiar statistics on black crime and incarceration, black poverty, and racial discrimination, the author extends the anti–law enforcement argument to Princeton:

Princeton’s Honor Code, tasked with holding students accountable and honest in academic settings, mirrors the criminal justice system in its rules and effects. It is harmful to the entirety of the Princeton community: the fear it instills in students fosters an environment of academic hostility. But it is often most damaging for first-generation low-income (FLI) students — students who also often belong to racial minorities.

Opposition to campus law and order includes a practical element:

The University should lead by example by dismantling the Honor Code system, which acts as a barrier to social mobility and a more equitable society. Only once such internal injustices are addressed can we make real-world changes.

In other words, those who run afoul of the code—disproportionately racial minorities and students from low-income families—will not graduate and will thus deprive society of their talents while sustaining economic inequality. The author adds, however, that if the code must be kept, Princeton should allow professors to attach a letter to these students’ transcripts attesting to their “development since the violation.”

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The Princeton code largely concerns administrative mechanics, but such codes generally cover offenses such as plagiarism, cheating, and falsifying information. They may also include criminal actions like robbery, vandalism, and sexual assault. Thanks to these rules, a diploma certifies that the graduate is trustworthy and earned his degree honestly.

Abolishing this code will substantially dilute the value of a Princeton degree. Critically, minority students will be disproportionally hurt. A future employer might reasonably believe, “here’s an affirmative-action job applicant with a Princeton degree, but given his likely weaker academic background, he may have cheated his way to a diploma.”

Why weaken or abolish the honor code? Particularly for those underprepared academically, self-interest may play a role. Why struggle with a tough research report if the instructor is powerless to flunk you for buying a paper from the internet? Moreover, this anti–law and order demand reflects the quest to replace merit with so-called “equity.”

There is, however, a more immediate psychological explanation. The energetic pursuit of social justice may be an addictive quest for euphoria—it feels so good to join the mob demanding that some obscure founder’s name be expunged from the campus. It’s certainly better than studying for an organic chemistry exam. The need for “action” thus resembles the passion for high-risk activities such as skydiving or bungee jumping. And, of the utmost importance, the adrenaline high that comes with this excitement, like that attending drug addictions, generally requires increasing levels of stimulus to bring happiness. Unfortunately, this craving may ultimately tempt one to engage in dangerous, counterproductive activities. Recall the anti–Vietnam War era, when frustrated campus protestors turned to bombing university buildings.

The rush from one adrenaline high to the next in the name of social justice is commonplace on many campuses. Typically, the quest begins with demands for additional minority admissions and faculty hiring, along with support services for them. Calls for separate identity-based departments and centers typically come next, along with pressures for a more accommodating environment. Soon there is agitation for speech codes, trigger warnings, removing allegedly racist books from the library, or banishing offensive sports mascots. Today’s demands include draconian efforts to root out campus racism via mandatory anti-racist training, obligatory anti-racist statements on course syllabi, and similar measures, all of which resemble exorcisms. There are even complaints that diversity bureaucrats are underappreciated. Since none of this seems to satisfy activists, on to the next crusade.

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Administrators invariably accede to student demands, and so, like the thrill-seeker who has just skied Mount Everest, something yet more novel must be found to keep the adrenaline flowing. Sadly, demands grow increasingly antithetical to the school’s academic mission. In fact, their absurdity enhances the exhilaration. Today, demanding that more black students be admitted hardly gets the juices flowing. Instead, rally to “decolonize” reading assignments or to eliminate standard English grammar in essay writing. The quest is almost insatiable.

Can the social justice adrenaline junkies be stopped? The most effective solution is for administrators just to say “no.” Faced with this rejection, student-activists might now take up a dangerous sport for their excitement. Unfortunately, judged by the past administrative record, a ‘just say no’ strategy is unlikely. Surrendering to the mob means hiring yet more functionaries and is almost always the safest career choice.

Equally futile is the appeal to reason. There’s no point in explaining that anything that detracts from the school’s academic reputation eventually devalues the diploma. Similarly futile is pointing out how de-policing universities will invite criminals to campus for easy robberies and sexual assaults. Or that permitting cheating will only enhance the advantage of smart students who, thanks to their intelligence, will be more skilled cheaters. Appeals to reason are just as effective as trying to convince drug addicts that their habit can be deadly.

The only successful solution is to not admit the malcontents in the first place. Fortunately, the Supreme Court may soon decide against schools that prioritize racial diversity at the expense of academic accomplishment. If it does, weak-willed administrators can honestly claim that while they personally want to have a campus that “looks like America,” the law is the law, and so they must admit more geeky nerds oblivious to past injustices. Those who need an adrenaline high will now continue their quest, but not on campus. This is one addiction that can be cured.

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One thought on “Academic Honor Codes and Woke Adrenaline Junkies”

  1. Changes to honor policies will carry implications on how universities deal with sexual misconduct. The author of the ‘Princetonian’ piece does not address this issue.

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