The Freshman Pledge and the Honor Code are well-known rites of a Hillsdale student — but twenty years ago, Hillsdale students did not have to sign the Honor Code or recite the Freshman Pledge upon entering the college.
Both are fairly recent developments that arrived soon after Larry Arnn became president of Hillsdale College. Each came about at a time when students lacked their own personal commitment to Hillsdale, and faculty wanted to fix that.
“Dr. Arnn was quick to pick up on the fact that students weren’t fully cognizant that they were entering into a relationship with the institution, that they weren’t just sort of buying a product,” Professor of English and College Provost David Whalen said. “What we decided we needed to do was simply articulate for the benefit of the students, that this is not just a transaction. Something is under way here that is very noble, something very high, something that calls them to the better angels of their nature.”
The Freshman Pledge, also known as the Matriculation Ceremony Pledge, was introduced in 2004 and is a commitment by incoming freshman to diligent study and personal integrity in the presence of friends, family, and Hillsdale College faculty. The Honor Code, implemented in 2005, is a mutual pact by both the students and the college to strive for self-governance. They each highlight the reasons students are here and what their commitment to the college entails.
Professor of Law Robert Blackstock, who was provost at the time of the Freshman Pledge’s implementation, thought it was also necessary to commemorate the emotional goodbye students shared with their parents at the Convocation ceremony as they crossed into the next chapter in their lives.
“President Arnn bought into the idea quickly,” Blackstock said in an email. “He and I discussed the idea at some length. Dr. Whalen, who wields an artful pen, crafted the language.”
Following the Freshman Pledge’s institution in the Fall of 2004, drafting of the Honor Code began during the 2004 – 2005 academic year.
Although a “Hillsdale Code of Conduct” existed in the college catalog at the time, students gave it little to no attention.
“The previous code of conduct was lengthy, complicated, ugly. It was a list of rules. ‘Here are all the rules and regs — you may not scratch your right big toe on Tuesday nights and if you do you have a $25 fine,’” Whalen said. “There was no rhyme nor reason, it had the character of a thing that was the product of years of accumulated ad hoc responses. What we thought is, let’s start from scratch, and let’s simplify things.”
Instead of providing a list of do-nots, the college administration wanted to craft a code that simply asked students to behave in an honorable way.
“It was an attempt to reduce the code to its principles,” Whalen said. “How do you want students to behave? ‘Well I don’t want them getting in the dorms past 10.’ Can’t we just say behave honorably? Behave in the way we know we should behave?”
Although both the Honor Code and Freshman Pledge are commitments to behaving with honor and striving for integrity, they are different in emphasis.
“The Pledge focuses more on the relationship between the college and the students, while the Honor Code emphasizes the relationship that the students and the college have to the challenge of self-government,” Dean of Women Diane Phillip said in a statement provided to The Collegian.
Although both of these agreements are new traditions of Hillsdale College, students 200 years ago signed a pact similar to that of the Freshman Pledge. An agreement signed in 1855 reads: “We whose names are here inserted do hereby pledge ourselves in becoming connected as a student with Hillsdale college faithfully to observe all the laws and regulations of the college and to maintain to the best of our ability the good order of the institution during our connection therewith.”
Hillsdale later abandoned this tradition. Faculty librarian Linda Moore, who has been at Hillsdale College for 43 years, remembers that there was no Freshman Pledge when she came to the school in the ’70s.
“There was no pledge at that point, as far as I know. So as I say, probably maybe not through much of the 20th century, but certainly [in] the 19th century, the students did sign a pledge,” Moore said.
The lack of purpose caused by this gap in tradition was why the Freshman Pledge, and the Honor Code thereafter, were implemented.
“As I heard it explained to the faculty,” said Moore, “students would come to the college and not know what was expected of them, and it was kind of like, ‘Well, I didn’t know,’ and so I understand [the Freshman Pledge] was a way to have the students understand right at the start what was expected of them.”
Sophomore Transfer Gracen Aldaya felt intimidated by all the standards and expectations she agreed to when reading the Freshman Pledge at the beginning of this year.
“I felt like I was making a promise and I wanted to be able to keep that promise. But the whole diligent study and patient reflection — I was a little bit nervous about that,” Aldaya said.
But Aldaya definitely felt the emotional moment Blackstock aimed to commemorate when reciting the Freshman Pledge at convocation.
“[When] you just read it by yourself in your room, it doesn’t make as big of an impact. But when you’re saying it with a huge group of people — your fellow students — it’s more impressionable and it makes it seem more important,” she said.
Once both the Freshman Pledge and Honor Code were put into effect, Whalen said he did notice a difference in the student body.
“It wasn’t the stupid superficial, ‘Everyone used to be naughty and now they’re good,’” Whalen said. “It did however change their perception of what was underway — they had ownership. So a dorm wasn’t just a place, wasn’t just a fairly ugly hotel where you happened to flop. It was yours, it belonged to you, and in a very serious sense you were responsible for that dorm. And if that dorm was disgraced or damaged in some way, you were wounded by that. You didn’t think of the college as being wounded — you are the college. It changed the idea from the college being something you go to, to college being something you become part of.”