Honor Principle

History and Essays

Preamble to Honor Principle

Students and faculty at Reed have always described the “Honor Principle” as one of the College’s most important and distinctive features.  The first class of Reed students “voted to relieve the faculty of the burden of enforcing honesty in ...tests, and agreed to make it a ‘point of honor’ not to cheat in examinations” (Reed College Annual, vol. I, 1915).  In 1919, the constitution of the student body asserted that student conduct generally should be controlled “by the application of the Honor Principle, which is based on the assumption that students will be guided and governed by their own knowledge of right and wrong.”  In 1963, the Community Senate approved a statement amplifying on the knowledge of “right and wrong” which had heretofore sustained the Honor Principle: 

Two kinds of behavior are considered anti-social and therefore in violation of the honor principle:  (1)  Conduct which causes embarrassment, discomfort or injury to other individuals or to the community as a whole.  (2)  Conduct in violation of specific rules that have been developed over the years to meet special conditions in the community.

In 1968 this statement was amended by inserting the word “unnecessary” before “embarrassment,” and redefining violations of community rules as potential violations of the Honor Principle.  In 1973, the Faculty adopted a still more explicit statement:

The members of the Reed College community believe that they should take upon themselves a responsibility for maintaining standards of conduct which ensure an atmosphere of honesty and mutual trust in their academic and social lives.  Such standards of conduct rest upon a principle of honor rather than a constitutional system of right and law.  This principle entails the unquestioned integrity of the individual in all areas of his intellectual activity, and a shared responsibility for enabling the College as a whole to achieve its highest aims as a community of scholarship and learning.  The Honor Principle also demands the respectful concern of each person for the other, and the exercise of conscionable judgment in all actions toward individuals and their property.  Let it be understood that such integrity, concern, and judgment are not simply matters of an individual’s intentions, but, rather, entail qualities of conduct which are clearly reflected in one’s actions.  Although the College does not call upon its members to sign a pledge of honor, it does recognize the necessity for tacit agreement by all its members to support the Honor Principle by governing their own conduct in accordance with its spirit, by respecting regulations which the community has established, by acting in a responsible manner toward honor violations which come to their attention.....

The Community Constitution provides in its preamble a broader, but no less formal description of what was once simply called the “Honor Spirit”:

We declare our commitment to responsible and honorable conduct in academic and community affairs, and we reaffirm one another’s rights to freedom of inquiry and expression in coursework, scholarship, and the day to day life of the Reed community.  Since such freedom requires an atmosphere of trust and mutual confidence, we further declare that dishonesty, intimidation, harassment, exploitation, and the use or threat of force are incompatible with the preservation of this freedom.

The preamble to the new Student Body Constitution emphasizes one dimension of these ideals:  “We commit ourselves to respect, encourage and support one another in our academic and community lives.”  And writing in the 1989-90 Student Handbook, Jiro Feingold casts this spirit in more personal and less formal language: 

What the Honor Principle means to me:  Don’t lie, cheat, or steal.  Don’t mock or humiliate someone in a public forum.  Think about what you do, before you do it.  If it will inconvenience someone, try to find a solution compatible to both of you.  Try to make the community work.

Despite changing norms of behavior between 1911 and the present, this sampling from statements made over the years suggests that certain ideas have remained essential to the meaning of the Honor Principle.

  • The Honor Principle is a universal one, binding all members of the College, including students, staff, and faculty.
  • The Honor Principle assumes that members of the community will be honest (not only in heir academic work, but in all their behavior), will respect others’ rights and persons, will take responsibility for the impact of their behavior on the College as a whole, and will engage in conscientious self-reflection about their words and deeds.
  • The Honor Principle itself is not a law or code of conduct and does not take the place of or eliminate the need for legislation; instead, it presupposes voluntary compliance with established rules, regulations, and policies.
  • The Honor Principle mandates maximum reliance on individual judgment and conscience and minimal enforcement of rules and regulations through surveillance.
  • The Honor Principle implies that when individuals sincerely believe it necessary to violate a policy or break a rule, or to embarrass, discomfit, or in some way injure others or the community as a whole, they must acknowledge and explain their behavior, and be prepared to accept the judgment of the community’s judicial processes.
  • The Honor Principle depends on a collective concern for its survival:  members of the community have to discuss and analyze the meaning of the Honor Principle, and must internalize an obligation to see to it that potentially dishonorable behavior, their own or others’, receives some scrutiny, through acknowledgment and discussion, direct confrontation, or the mechanisms of the judicial process.

Reed has always been an institution with relatively few rules.  Unlike many other colleges, it lacks the equivalent of a legal code with a graduated scale of penalties correlated with a range of possible offenses.  Nonetheless, certain basic rights and duties are commonly understood as implied by the Honor Principle and by the intellectual purposes of the Reed community.  Some of these rights and duties have been formalized as College policies, rules, and regulations.  In addition, state and federal legislation has required the College to enact explicit policies on certain issues.  Under the terms of Article III of the Community Constitution, the Student Senate can initiate review and revision of all policies, rules, and regulations that exist.  If a rule or policy currently in place seems burdensome or ill-advised, we urge members of the community to contact a member of the Student Senate or the Community Affairs Committee of the Faculty. 

What follows is a list of what the Honor Council has identified as among the most important rights and duties contained within the concept of the Honor Principle.

  • Every member of the community has the right to freedom of inquiry in coursework, scholarship, and the day to day life of the College.
  • Every member of the community has an obligation to preserve an atmosphere of trust and mutual confidence.
  • Every member of the community has a right to a campus environment free of force and violence:  no weapons can be kept on campus, and the threat or use of force is not to be tolerated.
  • Every member of the community has a right to unimpeded access to classrooms, offices, and places of work.
  • Every student has a primary right to the use of his or her residence hall room for study and sleep.
  • Every member of the community has a right to the fair and equitable use of the library and other educational resources, a right that entails shared duties:  properly to check out books, to observe due dates, and to observe policies established for the library, the IRCs, and the IMC.
  • Every member of the community has a right to learn and work in an environment free from harassment and prejudice, and the right to seek redress of such wrongs through mediation or adjudication.