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Voting on values

It’s election season at Duke. The spring marks a seemingly never-ending campaign cycle, beginning with the announcement of the Young Trustee finalists earlier this week, and concluding with waves of Duke Student Government races. Despite the exhaustion that accompanies aggressively business casual Facebook newsfeeds and multiple rounds of endorsement meetings, these elections are important, because they an opportunity for Duke students to articulate their views and values through representation. Elected representatives provide remarkable value during their time at the university, helping to incrementally move the needle to improve the broader community of which they are a part. Students might be transient, but their impact on campus structures can be long-lasting.

But sometimes, the most important votes we cast on election day at Duke aren’t for candidates, but rather, are on referenda. Notable examples in recent history include the 40 percent plan and the Chanticleer funding votes, all of which determined the direction that thousands of dollars of student funds will flow each year. However, occasionally the impact of our votes are moral rather than material.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Duke Honor Code, which was first approved via a referendum in 1993, and then modified into the Duke Community Standard via student-faculty collaborations in 2003 and a vote in 2007. This fact is often forgotten on campus—that students wrote the rules which we abide. The novelty of norm-making is lost over time, but such discussions are constantly occurring across the nation. Right now, Princeton University is engaged in a serious clash between students and university leaders over the results of a referendum to transform the school’s honor code.

At the heart of discussions is a conversation about both what it means to be a student as well as what responsibilities we hold to each other. In the era of fake news and partisan mistruths, fine-tuning the direction of our moral compasses is an experience we should wholeheartedly engage in. Duke’s current honor code, the Duke Community Standard, captures the classic values that we all know—not to lie or cheat, and to be fundamentally decent and respectful of one another. But it’s that third line—the accountability to act when the standard is compromised—that is at the heart of today’s culture wars, both in student government and the federal government. 

After all, that’s the core dilemma in ethics; not simply whether we personally are willing to act according to our standards of right or wrong, but whether we are confident enough in our norms to speak out about them and exhort others to practice what they preach. At Princeton, the core debate focuses on the belief that university administrators can just wait out students and implement the ethics policies as they see fit. That’s never been—and should never be—the case at Duke. Criticisms of the conduct process and reports of cheating on campus might be valid; and if they are, it’s up to us to begin the movement to change.

So as campaign season kicks into gear this spring, think about how past votes have shaped present values —and what your role is on campus as the guardian of the Duke tradition of honesty and integrity.

Duke Honor Council's column runs on alternate Thursdays.


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