Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Bryn Mawr’s Honor Code: A Feminist Approach

dshetterly's picture

            In 1984, a seminar on women’s studies took place at Brown University in which featured philosopher Jacques Derrida criticized the traditional academic model as being “fundamentally ‘phallocentric’ or ‘phallogocentric.’” Derrida’s argument refers to the historical context in which the traditional academic model emerged. As Derrida notes; “All the objects, all the fields which presently structure the university today were already established by the nineteenth century” To the extent that the established fields excluded women from the academic structure, the model should be seen as phallocentric. This argument though should also be seen as a criticism of the academic structure. The hierarchal structure which forms the backbone of the system is also inherently phallogocentric. Derrida’s criticism argues that it is the responsibility for women’s studies to “put back into question the very principles of the structure of the former model of the university, it risks being just another cell in the university beehive”- it risks structurally reproducing the phallogocentric university model.
Bryn Mawr College is an institution which was created according to the same traditional university model that feminist deconstructionists like Derrida criticized over 30 years ago. The criticisms they articulated then are largely applicable to the university as it exists today- certainly in the academic sphere but also when extended to an understanding of social processes on campus. I would like to examine this in contrast with the college’s social honor code, a document that seeks to subvert –to a limited extent- the hierarchy that is inherent in the structure of the traditional model. The honor code, written in the 1800s took measures to ensure the incorporation of the student voice into the decision-making processes of the administration. Its conception was inspired by the desire to create community centered learning in the truest sense of the word- in line with the recommendations of Derrida almost 100 years before they were voiced. 
The college’s social atmosphere is shaped by a dynamic created by the conflicting interests between administrative control and student agency. For the purposes of this paper, we will see the position of the administration as an inherently phallocentric force which works to feminize[1] the students and the position of the honor code as a democratizing document which grants the students agency. This is an oversimplified view in that it homogenizes and positions as oppositional two forces which are diverse and complex. However, thinking about this as a power dichotomy provides a useful framework for a feminist examination of our college. Exploring these questions is important in assessing the extent to which the goals of the honor code are actualized and in measuring the power structure on campus. 
Over the course of this past semester, alcohol has emerged as a huge issue on both Bryn Mawr and Haverford’s campuses[2]. The issue of alcohol use is a delicate one to analyze because it is bound up in conflicting legal, moral, and cultural areas, particularly when around ¾ of the student body is not of legal drinking age. Alcohol use provides a useful case study for a measure of our campus’s power dynamic as it is a good example of a conflict of agendas between the students and administration. It is also useful as much of the honor code directly relates to social issues such as this one. 
            The preamble of the Honor Code reads: “Our intellectual and social development requires freedom born from trust. For growth requires more than blind adherence to a code of conduct, it requires reflection -- reflection upon our actions and how our actions affect those with whom we share the community. Such reflection is only possible when one’s judgment is trusted.” This excerpt highlights the rationale behind the community-centered approach stipulated by the Honor Code. The honor code centers the individual’s social sphere into that of the community. In doing so, the power structure governing student life is one inherent to that life, and is maintained by reciprocity. Each member of the college community is accountable to the community as a whole while the community is accountable to the individuals.
            Whereas at many schools, drinking behavior is shaped by a desire to avoid being caught, under the terms of the Honor code, student drinking behavior is guided by a desire to respect the community. The structure of this model grants power to everyone. In doing so, it calls into question the idea of community governance that is externally imposed rather than internally generated. 
            This year, administrative policies regarding alcohol use have been enacted in direct discordance with the honor code. Instead of seeking to strengthen the communal nature of our social structure, these policies have acted to silence the student voice on campus and thereby should be criticized for feminizing the students. Earlier in the year, the administration revealed the changes to our annual Halloween party. The event, sometimes described as Bryn Mawr’s “only real party of the year” has historically been student run. The changes this year included hiring professional bouncers and servers (traditionally student roles), limiting the number of guests allowed, requiring all attendees to wear wristbands. Effectively, the college made it a lot harder for underage students to drink alcohol. However, assuming that making it more difficult for students to get alcohol will stop them from doing it is entirely naive. It simply creates the sense that drinking must be done in secret. The result is that many students, knowing they won't be able to drink at parties, will "pregame" in their rooms. This involves consuming a lot of alcohol rapidly- enough to last through the night. As a consequence drinking behaviors on campus have become increasingly unsafe. However, rising incidences of alcohol related-accidents will simply reaffirm the initial policy changes.   It will create a self- fulfilling downward spiral.
One very important thing to understand about the significance of these policy changes is the way that the administration behaved in relation to the honor code. These changes were implemented hierarchically. The decisions were made by a group composed of administrators and elected students representatives, without input from the majority of the student body. They did not reflect the trust that the preamble argues is fundamental to learning and community living. Moreover, although many students were upset about the policy changes, their imposition occurred with little room or time for recourse. This behavior illustrates the phallogocentrist structure Derrida noted.
The important thing to understand about the significance of these policy changes is the way that the administration behaved in relation to the honor code. These changes were implemented hierarchically, decided by administrators at the top of the power structure without input from the majority of the student body. They did not reflect the trust that the preamble argues is fundamental to learning and community living. Moreover, their imposition occurred with little room or time for recourse. 
The Bryn Mawr Honor Code tries to create a campus in which decisions are made by the community for the community. In doing so, it was a pioneer in subverting the traditional hierarchal structure and inserting the student voice into the processes which affect them. The code aligns well with what Derrida claimed as one of the goals of Women’s Studies: “put back into question the very principles of the structure of the former model of the university.” In restructuring the traditional processes, the Honor code challenges those processes and the social structures which created them. Unfortunately, in their policy changes regarding alcohol this semester, Bryn Mawr college’s administration has acted in discordance with the principles of the Honor Code.   The implications for this are much more serious than whether or not students will be required to wear wristbands to next year’s Halloween party. The administration is structurally recreating a hierarchal system, thereby feminizing the student body. Membership in the Bryn Mawr community should reflect a desire to support, uphold, and build upon the system of self-governance instituted in the 1880s. Future administrative changes should be guided by this desire in order for our community to flourish. 

[1] This term refers to the way the phallocentric hierarchal structure acts to silence or disempower the students. If the structure is seen as inherently masculine then disallowance into that system should be seen as feminization.
[2] It is important to recognize events at Haverford as they do impact in many ways Bryn Mawr’s social perspective.