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.

Recommended Articles