The Class of 2021 and their parents read the Freshman Pledge together. | Facebook.

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.”