Honor Principle

History and Essays


Reflections on Being an Adult at Reed
By Reed College President Steven Koblik
January 2001


What does Reed mean when it claims that it wants to treat its students as adults both in terms of its academic programs and in the social lives of its students? In academic matters, the faculty exercises its professional capacities to structure the curriculum, establish rigorous standards and mentor students as they take primary responsibility for their own education. The historic consistency of generations of faculty in the application of their responsibilities has become the distinguishing characteristic of Reed, accepted and supported by virtually all other elements of the college community-students, staff, alumni, and board of trustees. Even nationally there is an appreciation of Reed's desire to differentiate itself by a singular, determined commitment to a defined set of intellectual standards. The meaning of treating students as adults in their social lives has not been as clear.

Philosophically, the college adopted during its initial decade a definition of student social life that has been as constant as the institution's commitment to its high academic standards. Student life, indeed that of the whole community, was to be governed by the Honor principle with little or no other formal rules and procedures. The Honor principle was left undefined in specific terms but was understood to protect the rights of all individuals and to function in a way as to maximize the potential of Reed to achieve its academic goals. The centrality of the Honor principle to student life meant that self-enforcement by students rather than institutional policing became the norm. As time has passed, this philosophy has been buffeted both by changes in broader American culture and society and by changes in the law with regard to colleges and universities as institutions.

Reed students obviously reflect ongoing American culture and society. What to one generation was normal and expected was not necessarily as obvious or indeed acceptable to another. For example, the college Handbook for 1921-22 noted that a "few traditions ... are becoming fairly definite and fixed."

Usually these serve the utilitarian purpose of keeping the grounds and buildings in good condition or promoting some school activity....

No names scribbled on walls or carved in furniture.
Papers deposited in waste baskets and not on the floor or lawn.
Smoking only under cover and not where objectionable.
Fire hoses kept on hangers and employed for their original purpose....

By the late 1960's and early seventies, broadly shared social values and social discipline were eroding: personal experimentation, sometimes with the aid of illegal substances, and a greater emphasis on self-fulfillment were more normative than previously. In the spirit of these times, the Honor principle became one more of free license than of the obligations of self-control and of self- discipline for the greater good of the Reed community. The social atmosphere at the college under these circumstances became more individualistic, more atomized, and less communal. The increase in the size of the student body in the late sixties also changed the intimate student environment on campus. Long-time community traditions such as Reed Unions became less regular, poorly attended, and finally hardly to exist at all. Sustained organized efforts such as the 1991-92 Presidential Commission on Student Life which involved students, faculty, staff, trustees, and alumni to address issues related to student social life have had little impact except in housing where the college has become more residential. Renewed faculty interest and leadership has led to more intense student-faculty dialogue but again little new clarity on many of the issues. The college appears caught between a recognition that limits on behavior detrimental to the college need strengthening and a continuing commitment to challenge students to control their own behavior. Nowhere is this conflict more apparent than in the area of drugs and alcohol.

Federal and state legal intrusions into the life of the college have increased dramatically over the past decade. Two legal areas have been most active: work place environment legislation and interpretation; and illegal substance use. In the former, the main issues relate to prohibiting various forms of biases in the workplace and making the workplace free of harassment. Colleges and universities are not treated differently than other places of work in these matters. In the latter area, however, colleges and universities are treated uniquely. State and federal support for post- secondary education has been tied to drug and alcohol legislation as well as crime reporting, etc. Courts have progressively interpreted this legislation in a more and more restrictive manner as far as educational institutions are concerned. In short, colleges and universities are held uniquely accountable for behavior of members of their communities and have seen growing liability. issues as well as threats of withdrawal of public funding for financial aid and scientific research.

The result of these changes has led Reed to adopt a drug and alcohol policy that complies with the law. The college has tried to walk a thin line between legal compliance and affirmation of its traditional attitudes toward enforcement. Students seem confused despite formal announcements and constant affirmation by college authorities about whether the college is actually serious or simply nominally conforming to legal requirements. The college is serious. The recent board of trustees' resolution stated clearly that the college must be in compliance with the law. Equally clear is that the board, faculty, and administration want to affirm the Reed tradition of student self- enforcement. The challenge is how to do it?

The answer seems to me to be a marriage of our desire to treat students as adults and of the Honor principle. Adults normally understand the difference between "public" and "private" behavior. "Public" behavior certainly reflects an appreciation of the law and of the relationship between individual behavior and institutional responsibilities. "Private" behavior involves choices that individuals make related to their own personal lifestyles, independent of formal affiliations through work or other institutions. If Reed students could make this adult differentiation, students would take responsibility both for their own behavior and for protecting Reed institutionally. Of course, this is precisely what the Honor principle was always intended to be. It has asked us to temper our "public" behavior to support the intellectual mission of the college. It holds each of us accountable. "Private" behavior is not germane for scrutiny by the Reed community. Can students understand and agree with this differentiation? Can we use the Honor principle, the Honor Council, and the J-Board to insure that both individuals and the college are appropriately supported and protected? I can think of no other set of questions more important to the college at this juncture in our history.

We have a wonderful opportunity to affirm how different Reed really is. We can use these issues to forge a stronger sense of community and to help each other maximize the value of a Reed education.