Keys to 'Cliffe Dorms Unlock Secret of Honor System Ethos

"Perhaps the whole Radcliffe philosophy of education can be expressed best in one symbol--the dormitory key that is entrusted to each student," the Radcliffe Freshman Register claims. During a freshman's first week at the College, she is presented with this key. Such is her introduction to the social aspect of the honor system, which has guided the behavior of Radcliffe students for 50 years. Described as "an ideal toward which the College is striving," the honor system applies to academic as well as social behavior.

Today the 'Cliffie is allowed a great deal of freedom in governing her social life, in line with a trend followed by the majority of liberal arts colleges. Although the unrestricted liberty of girls at co-educational Reed College in Oregon or Antioch in Ohio is neither her possession nor her goal, the 'Cliffie does have certain privileges which are denied her counterparts at Wellesley and Vassar. For example, the Radcliffe student's late permissions are unlimited except during the first semester of freshman year. Wellesley girls, however, must spend four years arranging their social lives around a specified number of one o'clocks.

Sign Out Book

Living under a so-called "honor registration system," symbolized by the dormitory key, the 'Cliffe "signs out" by writing her name and destination in a special book provided for the purpose. Permission to stay out later than 1 a.m. is fairly easy to obtain, in direct contrast to Wellesley, where special after-one permissions are almost unheard of.

On returning from her evening out, the 'Cliffie may pause for a moment on the dormitory steps before unlocking the door and disappearing within to complete the "registration" process. There is no one around to make sure that she records her signin time honestly. This unique feature of the honor system presents the 'Cliffie with a certain amount of temptation, for if she returns even five minutes later than planned, she receives a mild penalty. For being 15 minutes late, she gets "the works!"--a social probation which requires her to spend one Saturday night within the next two weeks upstairs in the dormitory. Repeated offenses extend the length of the probationary period.

Surprisingly enough, the system functions with more than moderate success. Few girls want to endanger their liberal privileges by abusing them, and fewer still find the cumulative social probation a stiff penalty, since the slate is wiped clean at the end of each semester. The rare cases of "false registration" are, however, considered serious by the Radcliffe Student government. On at least one occasion, the Administration has followed Student Government's recommendation to expel a girl for this offense.

Chaperonage Rules

Today's chaperonage rules are also in line with the Radcliffe concept of few regulations and great freedom. Three simple statements, buried on a little-perused page of the Student Handbook, require students to refrain from visiting a man's apartment without another girl, to procure the chaperonage of an older couple for a private party after 1 a.m., and to observe the parietal rules of men's dormitories. Whether or not these honor-system rules are actually obeyed seems to be a matter for dispute. Deans and students are disinclined to change them, however, claiming that the rules function as a guide, if not as a strict code of behavior.

Began in 1901

The social honor system has gone through many changes since it went into effect in 1901, when Bertram Hall was opened. The girls in those days had dormitory keys, but little opportunity to use them.

Seeking to provide adequate chaperonage for unprotected girls in the possibly dangerous Cambridge environment, the Administration turned to the honor system as a method of enforcing College rules and principles. 'Cliffies were quick to realize that they had much to gain from Administrative trust. "Great responsibilities have been entrusted to us, and, of course, we always try to show that we are capable of meeting even more," one practical 'Cliffie wrote in the 1925 Student Handbook.

In 1929 the Radcliffe Student Government and the Administration produced possibly the most ridiculous set of rules ever issued at the Annex, with a list of 13 designations of activity, each requiring a specific sign-in time. Certainly "winter automobiling" from which a girl had to return by 7:30 p.m., was not overly popular, but sleigh-riders could stay out until 12:30. Protests against the system were effective, for the next year found the sign-out regulations greatly simplified. The rules at last began to resemble those of Radcliffe today, with sophomores, juniors, and seniors permitted unlimited twelve o'clocks.

Ambitious '37

But these privileges were not enough for the ambitious class of '37, whose members petitioned for the right to choose their hours of return. They felt that seniors with satisfactory academic and social records should be allowed to use their own judgment. Although the Administration was alarmed at first by the thought of such unrestricted freedom, the girls eventually prevailed. When senior privilege began in the fall of 1937, it was meant to free students from the petty annoyance of penalties for returning five minutes or even half an hour later than originally planned. The privilege functioned in this form for eight happy years. Then someone pointed out that the standard procedure of checking books to make sure that all girls had returned safely was prolonged indefinitely by this system, and since 1946, girls on senior privilege have been subject to penalties for late sign-ins.

Radcliffe's honor system is less apparent but perhaps more important in other areas than social activity. In 1899, when 'Cliffies first began to assert their urge for self-government, they looked to the library as the place to start. "Stimulated to action by continued and mysterious depredation among the books," the students formed a library committee. Although this group had almost no power over the management of the library, it was significant as the beginning of the honor system in its efforts to encourage students toward responsible use of library facilities.

Originally, the Annex had visions of a completely "free" library, with reserve books left on open shelves and students left on their honor to use these books briefly and in specified places. However, as is frequently true, the 'Cliffie soon discovered that what works well in theory fails in practice. Reserve books disappeared at an alarming rate, and students and faculty complained. The library then instituted an open-reserve system for reference and source books not currently in great demand and a rotating closed-reserve system for books in daily use.

Despite this apparent step backward for the honor system, the library has never found it necessary to install a check station, such as the ones in Widener and Lamont, where students must stop and prove that they are not absconding with illicit volumes. Furthermore, the method of checking out books from the Radcliffe library has a casual, trustful air--students sign the book's card and leave it on the circulation desk, pick up a date-due slip, and depart, all without any supervision by librarians. For those used to Harvard's stricter methods, the whole procedure seems slightly haphazard. One leaves the library with the feeling that he has gotten away with something, if only a two-week book.

In recent years, application of the honor system to academic life has stirred up considerable controversy among Radcliffe students and faculty members. Examinations have never been strictly proctored at the Annex, even in the days when 'Cliffies took all exams in Longfellow Hall under Harvard regulations. Nevertheless, students in the early forties campaigned for the right to apply the honor system to final exams. When Dean Mildred P. Sherman proposed the idea to University Provost Paul Buck, he told her it would never work at Harvard, but to "go ahead and try it" at Radcliffe. The Annex went ahead, but it was soon apparent that the total freedom advocated by Student Government was a step in the wrong direction.

Under the method first instigated, the proctor was stripped of all authority and left to act as a mechanical aid in conducting the exam. The system contrasted sharply with that still in effect at Harvard, where proctors prowl the aisles and peer over shoulders to prevent cheating. Another provision allowed the 'Cliffie to leave the examination room without a weary but determined proctor dogging her footsteps. Though girls were on their honor not to give or receive aid during the course of an exam, they were free to take both question sheet and blue book anywhere they pleased, and to talk to whomever they wished. Unable to resisted the temptation, a few girls departed for the Square to take their finals over a cup of coffee in the Bick--an atmosphere hardly conducive to serious academic endeavor.

But this freedom was not destined for a long life. Individual instructors, proctors, and even students became upset over the amount of cheating possible under such a system. Despite the fact that Student Government began placing mild restrictions on exam conduct a few years after the honor-system privilege was granted, the 'Cliffies clamored for "crystallization of a positive honor system." In particular, the student body objected to a principle which lay at the heart of successful unproctored examinations--the student's responsibility to report any rule violations which she chanced to observe.

By the fall of 1953, pressure for a thorough review of the honor system became so great that President Wilbur K. Jordan appointed a committee of three student leaders and two deans to make a year-long study of the system Striving, as one member of the group said, "to reconcile ideals and utility," the committee held bi-weekly discussions and sponsored a Radcliffe News poll of student opinion. Issued in June, 1954, the group's report called for a return of authority to the proctor, and emphasized the proctor's duty to report infractions of a set of revised rules. Student objections to reporting others' rule violations were largely overlooked by the committee, which urged that girls continue to be responsible for each other. This provision, however, remained so universally disliked and disregarded that last fall Student Government Association followed the course of least resistance and abolished it. "Rightly or wrongly, the code not to inform is deeply ingrained in all of you," Dean Kathleen O. Elliott commented. In general, Annex undergraduates supported the paradoxical position that social pressure actually works more, rather than less effectively when students are not forced to report one another.

According to Radcliffe's present examination rules, nearly identical with those suggested in 1954, students are forbidden to remove question sheets or blue books from the exam room and are requested not to talk in the room or halls. They are still free to leave the room without a proctor's guardianship. However, these rules lost much of their importance last fall, when the Radcliffe Administration voted to hold joint exams with Harvard in courses enrolling less than 20 'Cliffies. As a result, Radcliffe administered only 52 separate examinations at mid-year, while Harvard and its regulations controlled finals in approximately 375 courses.

No Radcliffe girl ever promises honorable conduct during an exam by signing a statement, a practice termed "high-school" and "as ridiculous as the loyalty oath." Nevertheless, few students have been accused of cheating. In the most recent case, four years ago, a girl was reported to have concealed notes in a box of dried apricots. The accusation was never proven to anyone's satisfaction, and the girl graduated from Radcliffe with her academic honor and her apricot box intact.

According to the 1958-59 Student Handbook, "the effectiveness of the honor system is dependent not only upon each student's observance of the rules of the College, but also upon her willingness to share in creating that public opinion necessary for its success. All Radcliffe students are expected to assume full responsibility for adult behavior." In effect, the honor system may be divided into a spirit of honor and a system of permissions. The spirit is an ideal of conduct which has characterized the College for many years, producing a special sort of maturity in the Radcliffe student and preparing her to live under the present system of a few reasonable, concise rules, always flexible to fit the individual situation.

The present system, which has gained the cautious approval of deans and students alike, has developed cyclically over a half century. During the general unrest of the nineteen-twenties, Radcliffe girls were bound by a social system of comparatively stringent rules. With the thirties came the progressively greater freedom that caused apprehension among members of the Administration. Ada L. Comstock, then President of the Annex, voiced the opinion, "You never take a step back--once you go forward, you never retreat." But she was at least partly mistaken, for the amending of senior privilege in the forties reversed the trend by lessening social freedom. As for the library honor system, it too exists in modified form, and today's examination rules are clearly a compromise between the original restrictions and the anarchic freedom of the forties and early fifties.

What is the future of the honor system at Radcliffe? No one seems very worried about it. The major controversies seem to have been resolved, although merging with Harvard in activities affected by the honor system may conceivably produce unforeseen problems and eventual modifications