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CLAYTON v. TRUSTEES OF PRINCETON UNIV.

May 6, 1985

ROBERT CLAYTON, Plaintiff,
v.
TRUSTEES OF PRINCETON UNIVERSITY, a corporation of the State of New Jersey, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: ACKERMAN

 This case presents the difficult and delicate issue of what role a court of law should play in reviewing a university's student disciplinary proceeding. In this case, Robert Clayton, a very intelligent and able student, was suspended for a year from Princeton University following a determination by the student Honor Committee that he had cheated on March 6, 1979 while taking a biology lab practical. This decision was affirmed by the President of Princeton University, William G. Bowen. Although Mr. Clayton later returned to Princeton and successfully completed his studies, the vigor with which this suit was litigated many years after the incident demonstrates the intensely felt sympathies and concerns on each side of this issue.

 Gene Smith in his biography of Woodrow Wilson, who was head of Princeton University early in this century, describes Wilson's reaction to the same issue over 80 years ago. A student was expelled for cheating and:

 
his mother came to plead for his reinstatement with the man who passed upon the expulsion. She said she was undergoing serious medical treatments and that the shock of having her boy expelled might well bring those treatments to naught. The answer was, 'Madam, you force me to say a hard thing, but if I had to choose between your life or my life or anybody's life and the good of this college, I should choose the good of the college.' But he could eat nothing at luncheon that day.

 See G. Smith, When the Cheering Stopped - The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson, 28 (1964, William Morrow and Co.).

 My conclusion in this case is that Princeton has accorded Mr. Clayton fundamental fairness in convicting him of cheating, and that is all that the law requires. While this ruling may resolve the case at hand, I am under no illusions that it will put to rest the heated debate engendered by this and other incidents where long established honor systems have been attacked. Public opinion on the subject naturally runs the entire gamut from the cynical to the reverential.

 Joseph J. Ellis, former West Point instructor and author of School for Soldiers, commented:

 
We don't live in a world in which there exists a single definition of honor any more, and it's a fool that hangs on to the traditional standards and hopes that the world will come around to him.

 See, "Cheating Promps Air Force to Halt Cadet Honor Boards", NEW YORK TIMES, Sept. 20, 1984, p. 1, col. 3.

 On the other hand, William Fishback, a University of Virginia spokesman, was quoted in the same article as saying of the University of Virginia's Honor Code:

 
It is the one precious thing to the alumni. Wherever you travel around the country the alumni will ask after the condition of the honor system. Id.

 While there is no particular evidence before me on the attitudes of the Princeton alumni to their Code, I surmise that their concern is also great. I surmise also that some of their respect for the Code is a retrospective appreciation of the role the Code has played at Princeton in turning young students into adults who must take personal responsibility for their own actions.

 Oscar Wilde in an epigram once described a cynic as being a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. If my premise regarding alumni concerns is correct, I suppose one could look cynically at such idealism. Being "burdened" with an honor system, however, can reasonably be viewed, as a vote of confidence in the maturity of a young adult.

 While there are certainly some doubters, some cynics, and even some cheaters at Princeton, there is evidence in this case that some Princeton students do, even prospectively, recognize the value of the Code. Princeton has concluded that an honor system can have a beneficial effect on the training and education of its students, and I do not view that choice as being devoid of value.

 With that backdrop in mind, I turn to the facts of this individual case.

 FINDINGS OF FACT

 The following findings of fact are made pursuant to Rule 52 of the Federal rules of Civil Procedure.

 The plaintiff, Robert Clayton as admitted to Princeton University as a member of the Class of 1981. On Saturday, March 10th, 1979, (four days after the episode) Clayton, then a sophomore, was convicted by a student-run disciplinary body, the Honor Committee, of cheating during a biology laboratory exercise. *fn1" Mr. Clayton was suspended for one year, a result of which he did not graduate until June of 1982. He did, however, successfully graduate and go on to medical school.

 The defendant, The Trustees of Princeton University, is an educational corporation in the State of New Jersey. It operates the well known and prestigious institution of higher education known as Princeton University ("Princeton"). Princeton offers undergraduate programs leading to the degrees of Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science in Engineering. It has approximately 4,450 students in its undergraduate division and approximately 1,445 students in its graduate division.

 The plaintiff has raised numerous areas where he feels his rights under the Princeton Honor Code were denied. They are as follows:

 He was not properly advised of his rights under the Honor Constitution; the Honor Committee abrogated his right to have an advocate on his behalf at the hearing; they improperly interrogated him prior to the hearing; they abrogated his right to call witnesses on his behalf at the hearing; the Committee was biased; the Committee failed to keep proper records of its proceedings; they misrepresented the record to President Bowen; and Princeton failed to supervise or otherwise control the Committee. Each of these issues will be discussed seriatim.

 THE HONOR SYSTEM

 With respect to its undergraduate students, Princeton maintains a bifurcated disciplinary system with non-concurrent jurisdiction in two committees, the Princeton Honor Committee and the Faculty-Student Committee on Discipline. Charges of violations of rules and regulations with respect to academic exercises not covered by the Honor System, including essays and laboratory reports, are adjudicated by the Faculty-Student Committee on Discipline. The Faculty-Student Committee has administrative, faculty and student members and can impose penalties ranging from censure to expulsion.

 The Faculty-Student Committee has no jurisdiction over matters relating to cheating during written examinations, even if the faculty member administering the examination fails to adhere to the formalities which attend the administration of written examinations. It is the nature of the exercise, not the presence or absence of certain formalities, which determines the jurisdiction or the Honor Committee. A form of the phrase, "at Princeton, all written examinations are conducted under the Honor System," appears in virtually every University publication before the Court. Plaintiff originally contended that the Honor Committee did not properly have jurisdiction of this matter, but plaintiff no longer urges the court to reach this issue, and I shall not.

 In 1893, the undergraduate students at Princeton established the Honor System. Prior to that year, all undergraduate examinations were proctored by University personnel, and charges of cheating were adjudicated by the faculty and administration. Since then, all written examinations are under the Honor System. Charges of violations of the Honor System are adjudicated by the Honor Committee, an all student body, with a right of appeal to the President of the University. The system is still viable.

 Cheating allegations are adjudicated by the Honor Committee, composed of seven present and past presidents of Princeton's undergraduate classes. At the time of Robert Clayton's conviction, the Honor Committee consisted of the presidents of the four undergraduate classes, two members of the senior class and one member of the junior class. The Chairman of the Committee was the senior who had been president of his junior class.

 The members of the Honor Committee are agents of Princeton for purposes of fulfilling their Honor Committee responsibilities. The Constitution of the Honor System states:

 
Violations of the Honor System shall consist of any attempt to receive assistance from written or printed aids, or from any person or papers, or of any attempt to give assistance, whether the one so doing has completed his or her own paper or not. This rule holds both within and without the examination room during the entire time in which the examination is in progress, that is, until all papers have been handed in. Article V, par. 1.

 The Honor Constitution and any informational materials explicitly state that it is an Honor Code violation both to give or to receive assistance on an examination. See, e.g., Honor System materials in Matriculation packet; Admission Information bulletin; Undergraduate Announcement; Rights, Rules and Responsibilities. Indeed, after every examination a Princeton student must write and sign a pledge on the exam paper stating, "I pledge my honor that, during this examination, I have neither given nor received assistance." Honor Constitution, Art. V, Par. 4.

 There was some confusion in the testimony at trial, however, as to whether failure to report an incidence of cheating was a violation of the Honor Code. A careful review of the testimony and the Princeton publications discussing the Honor Code leads me to conclude that failure to report an observed incidence of cheating is not an Honor Code violation. At most, failure to report a violation of the Code is a violation of tradition and common understanding. See Plaintiff's Exhibit 5, April 1977, letter from Robert A. Connor, Chairman of the Honor Committee to newly accepted undergraduates; Plaintiff's Exhibit 7 "The Undergraduate Announcement", April 1976 at p. 23; Plaintiff's Exhibit 8 "Rights, Rules, Responsibilities, Guidelines for Students," 1978 ed. at p. 31.

 The honor pledge is to be given on each written examination. Refusal to sign the honor pledge on any examination paper is "prima facie evidence of violation of the Honor System." (Article V, Paragraph 3, Honor Constitution). It "must at all times be written and signed by the student." (Article V, Section 4).

 Central to the Honor System is Princeton's Honor Constitution. It details the rights of the accused, the manner in which they shall be investigated, tried and penalized, defines violations of the Honor System, and empowers the Honor Committee to adjudicate alleged violations. In addition, Princeton's annual publication "Rights, Rules, Responsibilities -- Guidlines for Students," states that "much of the internal organization and virtually all of the operating procedures of the Honor Committee are determined by the Committee itself. The tone and style of each year's Committee may vary, but there is a remarkable continuity in procedure from year to year." Id., page 32.

 Upon receipt of a charge of a violation of the Honor System, the Committee is empowered to conduct an investigation and, if the facts warrant it, a hearing, to determine whether the accused student is guilty or not guilty. The accused has a right to receive an unsigned letter written in some reasonable detail by the accuser, delivered at least 24 hours prior to the hearing by the chairperson of the Committee. (Article IV, Section 5). If convicted, the student may be suspended for one year or permanently separated from the University. (Article III, Section 2). The student has a right of appeal to the President. (Ibid). At the time of Clayton's appeal, there was no record of an Honor Committee's ruling having been overturned by the President of the University.

 Article IV of the Honor Constitution sets forth in detail various rights of the accused student and the procedures to be followed in conducting hearings. Prior to the hearing, the accused shall have his rights explained to him and shall be asked to sign a statement that the rights have been explained. Article IV of the Honor Constitution states in pertinent part:

 
3. Six of the seven votes shall be necessary for conviction. If fewer than seven members shall hear a case, unanimity shall be necessary for conviction. A quorum shall consist of five members.
 
* * * *
 
5. The accused shall learn of the charges brought against him or her through an unsigned letter written in some reasonable detail by the accuser and delivered at least twenty-four hours prior to the hearing by the Chairperson of the Committee who shall explain the charges and enumerate the rights of the accused as hereinafter provided in Article IV, Section 6. The accused shall be asked to sign a statement prior to a hearing saying he or she has been informed of his or her rights under the Honor Constitution.
 
6. The rights of the accused shall include:
 
a. the right to review in advance all documents constituting direct material evidence;
 
b. the right to call witnesses;
 
c. the right to have at any hearing an adviser of his or her choice from among the resident members of the university community, who may speak on his or her behalf and cross-examine the witnesses;
 
d. the right, in the event of a conviction, to receive a copy of a summary statement of the grounds for the Committee's decision, and to poll the votes of the individual Committee members;
 
e. the right in the event of conviction to receive a record of the hearing.

 The role of the adviser provided for in section 6(a) of Article IV has been referred to in this litigation as that of the "defense adviser," and plaintiffs have critiqued the defense adviser's actions in terms of what would have been effective and zealous representation of an accused by defense counsel in a court proceeding. No evidence was presented, however, to indicate in any way that the role of defense adviser as envisioned by the framers of the Princeton Honor Constitution and carried out in the regular course of Honor Committee proceedings is the same as the role an attorney-at-law should play in an adversary proceeding before a court of law.

 I ruled in my opinion on summary judgment that the instructions given by the Honor committee to Clayton's defense advisers that the advisers were to provide a 'balanced' picture rather than be 'overly partisan' may have compromised Clayton's defense. This conclusion was, however, made as a result of drawing every inference in favor of plaintiff Clayton, as is proper on a summary judgment motion. The testimony and evidence I have reviewed after a plenary trial now leads me to conclude that there was no error in either the guidance the defense advisers were given concerning their duty or the actual way in which they carried out their duty.

 While the adviser clearly should act only in the interests of the accused, the manner the adviser may deem most effective is determined by the unique nature of the Honor Committee hearing which is not completely an adversarial hearing. A careful review of the testimony convinces me that Princeton, in its Honor Constitution, and in its implementation thereof, has sought to permeate the proceedings with fairness and truth at the expense of a zealous defense.

 While the loss of these records was unfortunate, I do not find this violation of Princeton's established procedures to be the substantial and material violation plaintiff makes it out to be. The Honor Committee which convicted Clayton did keep its own records, and in convicting Clayton they relied on their "own best judgment" and "that precedent of which [they were] aware." (See Committee's Letter to President Bowen.)

 In addition, I have found no evidence indicating that the absence of these records adversely impacted Clayton's case in any way.

 Article VI also provides that "the Committee may use recording devices to tape the proceedings of each case." Plaintiff correctly points out that the actual tapes of the hearing are of a poor quality, and that parts of the hearing testimony were never recorded, including the Committee's visit to the laboratory where the alleged cheating incident had taken place.

 While it would certainly have been better for the Committee to have kept a more complete record of the Clayton hearing, Princeton's own regulations did not require them to meet such a high standard. There is simply no requirement in the Constitution or elsewhere that a verbatim record of the hearing be kept. Plaintiff attempts to graft the requirements of a judicial, adversarial hearing onto a college disciplinary hearing, and I do not find such standards to be appropriate.

 Plaintiff also alleges that he was not adequately advised of his rights under the Honor Constitution. I find that Clayton had actual and constructive knowledge of Princeton's Honor System at the time of his arrival at Princeton as a Freshman, and in March of 1979, prior to his first contact by the Honor Committee concerning this case.

 Prior to becoming a student at Princeton, each accepted applicant must complete various matriculation forms, including a written statement agreeing "to uphold the primary principles of the Honor System." That statement is written on the blank portion of a printed form which contains an explanation of the Honor System and the complete text of the Honor Constitution. Clayton received these matriculation forms and wrote an essay in his matriculation papers, stating that he understood the Honor Code.

 The 1976 - 1977 version of the Princeton University publication entitled An Introduction to Princeton, Admission Information, contained a brief description of the Honor System. The Undergraduate Announcement for 1976 - 1977 and 1978 - 1979 contained information on the Honor System. In addition, Rights, Rules, Responsibilities, 1978 edition, described the Honor System and its current procedures and reprinted the full text of the Honor Constitution. Prior to March of 1979, Clayton had received copies of these publications.

 Incoming undergraduate students are required to attend a meeting concerning the Honor Committee during the orientation period. The purpose of that meeting is to acquaint the new students thoroughly with the Honor System. Such a meeting was held in September of 1977, when Clayton was an entering freshman at Princeton. He did not recall whether or not he attended such a meeting. The Honor Constitution is also regularly published in the student newspaper, the Daily Princetonian.

 It is, therefore, inconceivable to me that Clayton could assert that he was unaware of his rights under the Honor Constitution.

 THE LAB PRACTICAL

 In March of 1979, Clayton was a sophomore at Princeton and a member of its swim team. He was also a student in a course entitled Biology 204.

 On March 6, 1979, Clayton took a make-up written examination or quiz, referred to as a "lab practical", because he had been at a swim team event when the examination was originally given. Two other students were taking the make-up examination at that time: Howard Nelson ("Nelson"), a fellow member of the swim team, and Robert Varrin ("Varrin"), who had missed the original examination to attend a track meet.

 The examination consisted of the identification of a number of laboratory specimens, slides, and model parts, which requires the students to walk around the laboratory room.

 Eleanor Maine ("Maine"), a Teaching Assistant employed by Princeton, remained in the laboratory while the students were completing the examination because students frequently have questions about biology lab practical examinations, such as the exact location of the organ to be identified. Both Clayton and Nelson asked questions of Maine during the time they took the test. Maine sat in the room doing some reading during the exam. It was not her intent to proctor the examination. During the course of the examination, Maine left the room at least once, and, in fact, was not in the room during the events which led to the accusation against Clayton.

 Maine did not request the students to write out the honor pledge because she was under the impression that it was not necessary for her to do so. Under normal University procedures, however, Ms. Maine should have asked that the pledge be signed, as she considered the examination to be under the Honor System. Whether the exam technically was administered under the Honor Code is irrelevant to this proceeding as plaintiff has waived his original allegations concerning improper jurisdiction of the Honor Committee.

 After Clayton and Nelson had finished the examination and had handed in their papers, Nelson asked Maine when and where he and Clayton could take another make-up examination in the same course. Maine left the room to inquire about the second make-up examination, while Clayton and Nelson remained. Varrin was still working on his examination, having started a few minutes later than the others.

 For the period during which Maine was out of the room, the versions of the event vary. According to Varrin, Clayton spoke with Nelson, consulted a lab manual, retrieved his examination paper from Maine's desk and changed his answer to question 19. According to Clayton, Clayton spoke with Nelson, attempted to consult a lab manual, looked at his examination paper and confirmed the correctness of his answer to question 19, but did not change his answer thereto. Having ascertained the location of their next examination, Maine returned and told Clayton and Nelson about the other make-up examination, whereupon they left.

 In this proceeding, the court is not concerned with which version is true. My job is not to second guess the substantive decision of the Honor Committee. The Honor Committee obviously believed Varrin's version of the facts, regardless of the contradictions found in his testimony.

 THE HONOR COMMITTEE INVESTIGATION

 Varrin attempted to locate a member of the Honor Committee to whom he could report the cheating incident. After speaking to a member of the Faculty-Student Committee on Discipline, Varrin eventually was put into contact with Craig Marx ("Marx"), who was then Chairman of the Honor Committee.

 Varrin met Marx in Firestone Library on Thursday, March 8, 1979, at which time they discussed the incident. Marx requested Varrin to prepare a written letter of accusation as soon as possible. Varrin prepared the letter and gave it to Marx later that evening. I find any inference suggested by plaintiff that the letter was not the sole product of Mr. Varrin completely unsupported by the evidence.

 Following the identification of Clayton by Varrin, MacDonald told Marx and Shields that he did not intend to participate in the Honor Committee's investigation or hearing because both he and Clayton were members of the swim team. At that time and the next day, Shields attempted to persuade MacDonald to participate in the Clayton hearing. Shields suggested to MacDonald that his participation would enhance the prospect that nothing in Clayton's favor would be missed, especially because of his knowledge of Clayton from the swim team. Marx, however, concurred in MacDonald's decision not to participate.

 On the evening of Thursday, March 8, 1979, Marx telephoned Clayton and told him that he had been accused of violating the Honor Constitution. Marx wanted to know if some members of the Honor Committee could come over and talk to him about it. Clayton responded by saying that he "wished they would come over and get it cleared up right away." (Clayton testimony, Vol. 2, p. 24, line 23). Marx and Shields went to Clayton's room at approximately 10:00 or 10:30 p.m. and discussed the cheating allegation with him for about forty-five minutes.

 During this meeting, Marx and Shields read the letter of accusation to Clayton at least twice in full. Clayton was permitted to look at the letter while Marx or Shields held a hand over the accuser's name, but he was not given a copy of the letter. Marx and Shields explained that they were not allowed to show Clayton the accuser's name, and they hadn't had a chance to xerox the letter without the name on it. Having read the letter several times, Clayton was at this point substantially ...


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