UVA grapples with how to reform its embattled Honor Code

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On February 25, UVA students will vote on what could be the most substantial changes to the University’s much-lauded Honor Code in the 170-year history of the student-policed system. File photo. On February 25, UVA students will vote on what could be the most substantial changes to the University’s much-lauded Honor Code in the 170-year history of the student-policed system. File photo.

On February 25, UVA students will vote on what could be the most substantial changes to the University’s much-lauded Honor Code in the 170-year history of the student-policed system, which demands that all Wahoos pledge not to lie, cheat, or steal, and threatens them with expulsion if they’re caught. But the storm of debate over the proposed reforms has revealed that while students are attached to the legacy of honor, when it comes to the system’s effectiveness—and their willingness to participate in it—they’re lukewarm at best. 

The Honor Committee’s own data points to the problems. In a survey conducted last year, 74 percent of students said they had very positive or somewhat positive feelings about the system, but only 24 percent said they believe it’s “very effective” in preventing honor offenses.

And when it counts, they balk. While 42 percent of students said they believed they would report an offense, about 80 percent of those who said they had seen one didn’t report it. The most common reasons given were not thinking the offense was serious enough and being worried about seeing a fellow student expelled.

Stephen Nash believes the 2012-13 Honor Committee has the cure for a faltering system. Nash, a fourth-year and the committee’s current chair, has been the chief cheerleader for a two-part reform effort approved last semester by the 27-member body, which is aided in its efforts by about 100 support officers from across the University. The first proposal would institute “informed retraction,” allowing students accused of offenses to admit guilt and leave the University for a year rather than face expulsion. The second would replace randomly selected juries of 11 students with a 5-person panel of elected representatives.

“The Honor Committee feels we need to change the system, and we believe this is the way,” he said. “It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly better than what we have right now.”

Chris Jones isn’t convinced. The fourth-year computer science major is the creator of a “Vote No on Honor” Facebook page, which has hundreds more followers than the Honor Committee’s own “Vote Yes” page.

“I haven’t met a single person who thinks the current Honor System is a good one,” said Jones. He has pushed back hard against the idea of scrapping random juries, because he feels the change will sever students’ only real tie to the system. But the root cause of the withering of the system, he said, is faltering faith in the single sanction—the one-strike-you’re-out rule.

Informed retraction is an attempt to make a multi-sanction system without calling it that, said Jones, but he thinks it still won’t fix the fact that the Draconian rule discourages honesty after the fact. The real solution is simple, Jones said. “When you have multiple levels of crime, you should have multiple levels of punishment.”

Two UVA law school faculty members agree. Professors Josh Bowers and Kim Forde-Mazrui sharply criticized the proposed changes in an article in last Friday’s Virginia Law Weekly. When a randomly selected jury doesn’t give you the results you want, the solution shouldn’t be to institute a permanent “professional” jury, the professors wrote, in part because they’re more likely to be biased in favor of their own assumptions. That’s why the prosecutor doesn’t sit in the jury box, they said. And like Jones, they think the reason there have been so many acquittals is that students are no longer comfortable with the system itself.

“In the face of a single sanction, an acquittal may convey the message that the punishment is too harsh,” they wrote. To get rid of the jury is to shoot the messenger.

But Nash said that argument glosses over a critical point: UVA’s honor system is fundamentally different than the criminal justice system. Honor juries are active participants in the trial process, and they’re not simply deciding guilt or innocence of previously defined crimes. They’re weighing many other factors and deciding if, taken on the whole, the incident was a violation of the University’s community of trust, so it’s all the more important that they fully understand the system, he said. “If less than 1 percent of the school is going to be represented in the honor system, do we prefer that 1 percent be picked by a computer?” Nash asked. “Or do want to have a say in those people who represent us?”

UVA has been here before. Thirty-three years ago, almost to the week, the student body was preparing to vote on whether to allow random juries for the first time. Op-eds in The Cavalier Daily from March 1979 show the same arguments being made now: representative juries versus educated ones; holding firm to tradition versus letting go of old ideals.

But Nash said time has shown the community made the wrong choice back then when it voted overwhelmingly to get rid of elected juries. In his mind, the experiment has failed. If the reforms don’t pass, it will be back to the drawing board, and he said he’ll be able to live with that. Maybe it will mean reexamining the single sanction, he said. Until then, he wants his fellow students to make changes now—for their sake, and each others’.

“It’s not fair to have students within the system be the forum for that conversation,” he said.

 

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