Past Tense: Radcliffe, Cheating, and the Honor Code

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.
By Jose A. DelReal

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

When ground broke on the new library on April 27, 1907, John Shaw Billings, who had a hand in the development of the project, spoke to a crowd of students and staff. “A common method in preparing an address for an occasion like this is to begin by saying that this new addition to your resources brings with it increased duties and responsibilities,” he stated.

Billings’ speech rested on a recurring question: “Does the library of a college for young men differ from that of a college for young women, and if so, how?” Arriving at no answer, Billings’ query emphasized that conventions of gender still weighed heavily on the codes of conduct at Harvard and beyond.

A staff editorial published in Radcliffe Magazine took up Billings’ question.“We should remember that by the behavior of its students, severally and individually, our college will be judged,” stated the editorial. “[This] will be tested in each of our daily pursuits, but nowhere, perhaps, with more significance than in the library.”

Weaving together the themes of respect, freedom, and honor alongside an estimation of the library’s rightful place in the minds of the Radcliffe women, the editorial continued: “With the opening of our new library comes the opportunity for every girl to show her respect for the rights of others…a place where each one shall be free to work and to think undisturbed.”

According to the honor system, the library would be entirely self-governed, without security points at check-out and without monitors to supervise noise. The library system was to be more than just a place to store books. It was a space where questions of privilege, freedom, and gender could be mediated and where self-efficacy could be realized.

The code, which was instituted by the Radcliffe Student Government in the early twentieth century and which lasted into the 1950s, extended far beyond the library itself. It governed the undergraduate careers of all Radcliffe women, from comings and goings in the dorms to extracurricular pursuits outside of them.

When women left the dorm halls, no one watched at the door to assure they followed curfew. If a girl was late, she could simply lie in the book. “Perhaps the whole Radcliffe philosophy of education can be expressed best in one symbol–the dormitory key that is entrusted to each student,” read the Radcliffe freshman Register of 1959.

Girls and Boys

When the suggestion emerged over 40 years later that Harvard and Radcliffe take joint exams, the cultural differences between the two schools were thrown on display. Such an endeavor would necessitate a Harvard honor system matching Radcliffe’s: a cultural incongruence that seemed insurmountable. Where the men’s exam rituals included proctors, dress codes, and a strict ban on silence, the Radcliffe women took unproctored exams, relished the chance to wear informal pants instead of skirts, and could enter and exit the building as they wished so long as they did not cheat.

For Harvard, such a code would include the duty to report any cheating by a peer. This wouldn’t fly in the old-boys’ network. And for the Radcliffe girls, doing away with their honor system would mean turning their backs on the comfort, safety, and individualism that such a code of conduct had afforded them for decades.

Noting the distinct cultures of the two schools, a dean at Radcliffe admitted to The Crimson in 1957 that the adoption of an honor code at Harvard was unlikely. “I can’t think of an effective self-governing system for Harvard,” she said.

A New Standard

Eventually joint exams did, however, become the new norm. This was in part abetted by deteriorating faith in the honor code caused by a string of thefts in the 1950s and growing unrest regarding the existence of any curfew rules whatsoever. By the early 1960s Radcliffe and Harvard had become so interconnected that the cultural differences between the two had ceased to be anything more than symbolic. And as the student body of a nearly-unified Harvard looked outwardly at the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, reservations against joint exams subsided and the code eventually faded into the tumult of the 1960s. Today no such honor code exists.

The sort of divisions that define Old Harvard have now dissipated, and with it the sense of urgency for self-determination that guided the Radcliffe honor code has subsided.

Yet past voices produce enduring wisdom. Pausing to consider a student’s responsibility to a college in 1907, an unnamed member of the Radcliffe Magazine editorial board wrote on the privilege of living and studying in Cambridge, Mass.

“As individuals, perhaps, no one can deny our right to be as noisy, as disorderly, as unpunctual as well like; the greatest harm in every case is done to ourselves,” she wrote. “We need only to carry the theory of individuality a little farther, and make it include individual responsibility…As soon as that day comes we may hope for a system of student government to which every[one] will conform, not as a duty merely, but as a privilege.”

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