Constitutions bind. They are documents of permanency and rigidity that set forth the basic natures of societies and of organizations for all time. They are not to be considered mere playthings to be shaped by the ephemeral whims of temporary sentiments. Unfortunately, this is the error into which the current honor referenda fall. They deny the ability of an informed committee to fully consider the policy options which they may assess as the most pressing to the students. They eschew a period of careful deliberation for arbitrary and strict time limitations. They confuse questions of good policy with questions of forum. Altogether, the Campaign for Student Self-Governance is an exercise of failed constitutionalism.
The first referendum exemplifies well this fundamental failure. In many ways, to quote Alexander Hamilton, it has been presented as the “least dangerous” of the three referenda, proposing only the fairly non-controversial idea that the honor committee should foster greater communication with the community through the holding of a biennial “popular assembly open to the general student body” to seek their concerns. Indeed, it has been described by committee member Joe Martin (Comm., 2015) as “institutionaliz[ing] a method of seeking student input, which could otherwise be forgotten in the transitioning of committees.” Who could be opposed to that?
But when we consider this referendum, we must answer two distinct questions: (1) is the proposed initiative a good idea and (2) is the constitution the correct place for it? The answer to the first question is somewhat mixed. The University community as a whole has professed a desire to be more involved with the committee’s decisions, and many committee members have expressed a desire to meet the community’s plea. On the whole, this is probably a healthy impulse, setting aside the possible improprieties that can arise when those charged with being fair and neutral decision makers are too beholden to popular support, but it is not yet clear whether the popular assembly outlined above is necessarily the best way to go about gleaning public opinion. In its support is only one similar session held one year ago with mixed results: it was reasonably well attended, but part of the attraction was its novelty and the urgency that was used to promote it. These wouldn’t work in future renditions of the event.
This is related to the second question regarding Referendum One, which is where the heart of my opposition to it lies. Constitutionalization of this procedure will not allow for the flexibility required to assess its true efficacy. If the goal of the campaign were truly to foster greater self-governance in the honor system, a more general clause requiring the honor committee to establish procedures for seeking public opinion should have been sufficient. Perhaps it would not be necessary given the exuberance for student input recent committees have shown, but it should be sufficient.
Secondly, if the goal is to “institutionalize” this practice so that future committees are aware of its importance and of its necessity in engaging the community in sincere dialogue, then it would much better serve all involved if were placed in a bylaw, a move the committee may take sua sponte with only a majority vote (Honor Committee Constitution, Art. VI). This would allow for a formal reminder to future honor committees of the importance of seeking student opinion without making the mistake of mandating the assembly proposed in Referendum One regardless of how future experience may suggest. Constitutionalization and institutionalization are not synonymous terms, and one cannot justify the one simply by citing the other.
Now, one may be tempted to excuse the way Referendum One rushes to get a one-year old “tradition” written into the immutable Honor Constitution as it prescribes a relatively harmless provision that, at its worst, could serve as a minor nuisance for committee members once every two years and could, at its best, provide a real forum for community engagement. However, this lack of desire to allow for thoughtful contemplation, discussion, and experimentation before adopting serious proposals permeates the other two referenda as well. This same trial period that has been given the popular assembly—one year—is now proposed as the maximum proper period of introspection given the Honor Committee before any proposal to which a majority of voting students assent in a non-binding referendum is submitted again to a binding vote as to whether it should be added to the permanent constitution. And, as Referendum Three menacingly beckons, this will not restrict itself to petty procedures persisting principally on the periphery, but the single sanction system itself that lies at the very heart of our system of honor.
By Alec Grieser
Alec is a second year in the College of Arts and Sciences.