Past Tense: Radcliffe, Cheating, and the Honor Code

Radcliffe Breaks the Curfew
Bonnie O. Wong

A few streets away from Harvard Yard, the Radcliffe Institute today stands as a marker of a time when Harvard and Radcliffe existed as two distinct spheres with distinct cultural codes, separated along gendered lines. By the early 1940s, Harvard began to enroll Radcliffe women into courses from which they had previously been barred admission. But even as the schools became integrated into one another, they continued to be separated by an odd ritual: Men and women, even if enrolled in the same courses, took separate exams.

The awkward wedge between the Harvard and Radcliffe policies was centered on the Radcliffe honor system that governed student life at the women’s college.

Today, Harvard is in the throes of cheating scandal, as University Hall begins to manage rumors of a forthcoming honor system. Rather than relying on individual governance like the Radcliffe honor code of old, today’s policies are structured around the idea that students fear the decisions of the Ad Board more than they care for their own sense of right and wrong.

The genealogy of the Radcliffe system provides a telling illustration of a different campus culture: one developed to sustain such a contract. Indeed, this code took shape and cemented itself into the ethos of Radcliffe just as the campus began to grow alongside the men’s college, marked by a spirit of individual direction.

Building Radcliffe, Building a Culture

The turn of the twentieth century had brought a great deal of growth and change to the nascent girls’ school, which until a decade earlier had been known simply as the Harvard Annex. Standing in the shadow of Harvard proper, the Annex’s position as an institution unto itself was tenuous. In its early years, the Annex lacked a robust collection of books of its own—not to mention a faculty—and so the girls of the Annex were necessarily dependent upon their relationship with Harvard to sustain the academic pursuits that drew them to Radcliffe. Women in those times had only as much access to an education as the Harvard men would give them.

By 1904, however, the weight of Radcliffe’s demand for emancipation began to converge upon the campus, both metaphorically and physically. Straining under the enormity of countless new books, the Fay House, where Radcliffe’s books were held, began to buckle onto itself as the foundation shuddered under the stress of the added weight.

A petition for a new library was put forward that year, and plans to build it were formally announced in June 1906. The library was to be situated on the other side of the Agassiz House, rounding out the Radcliffe campus architecturally and in spirit.

This moment of growth, inspired by the women of Radcliffe, saw to it that the success of Radcliffe women could be forged directly from their own campus. The honor code was immeasurably tied to this pursuit of self-determination.

“We hear so much about not letting college rob us of our individuality and convert us into mere automata…that we are likely to forget that we are members of society as well as individuals,” stated a Radcliffe Magazine editorial at the time. “A time has come for us to try to reconcile the two extremes, and become responsible and individual members of society.”

A Library and a Metaphor