Honor crimes: Is it time for the single sanction to go? 

A 2018 review of the honor system found that 45 percent of students would not report a violation because of the single sanction that requires expulsion. Photo: Eze Amos A 2018 review of the honor system found that 45 percent of students would not report a violation because of the single sanction that requires expulsion. Photo: Eze Amos

Tucked on the fourth floor of Newcomb Hall in back of UVA’s Academical Village are offices of the student-run committee that investigates, charges, and tries fellow students accused of lying, cheating, or stealing. Its bylaws require panels to hand down the same punishment for any single conviction: permanent expulsion from the university.

That harsh mandate, known as the single sanction, combined with documented racial bias in its implementation, has students today questioning the relevance of the 100-year-old Honor Code in the 21st century.

Recent data has painted a troubling picture of the single sanction. The Honor Audit Commission, a semi-independent review of the honor system published in spring 2018, found that one in five professors would be deterred from reporting an honor offense because they did not believe in the single sanction. For students, that proportion leapt to 45 percent.

Honor’s Bicentennial Analysis, published in February, found significant racial basis in both reporting and processing. From 2012 to 2017, black students were over-reported by nearly 3 percent and Asian students by over 15 percent, though neither were sanctioned disproportionately. Meanwhile, white students were under-reported by over 28 percent.

During the same time period, international students were both over-reported and disproportionately sanctioned by 18 percent, according to the report. Critics find this particularly disturbing since expulsion for international students could lead to deportation, as many reside in the U.S. on student visas.

Honor’s evolution

Honor has evolved significantly since its inception in 1842, when faculty approved a resolution by UVA law professor Henry St. George Tucker requiring students to inscribe an anti-cheating pledge on the bottom of every assignment. Faculty panels ran the fledgling honor system for its initial 70 years, expelling the first student for cheating on a medical school exam in 1851.

At the turn of the 20th century, the honor system morphed into UVA’s largest commitment to student self-governance. In 1912, students approved a resolution to create an official committee, to be comprised of student presidents from each of the university’s schools. Ever since, the Board of Visitors has granted the Honor Committee expulsive powers each year.

Today, with 27 elected representatives and 104 appointed support officers, honor remains the most powerful student organization on Grounds. Its alumni-funded endowment is in the millions and guarantees funding as a special-status organization, which has afforded a lavish budget for promotional materials and partnerships with other student groups.

The Honor Committee also bestows immense privileges to its members. The committee owns Lawn Room 37, enabling it to handpick its Lawn resident from the committee each year, and a special seal is emblazoned on all of its members’ diplomas.

Honor’s jurisdiction is expansive. Anyone can file an honor report against a student, so long as the accused committed an offense in Charlottesville, Albemarle, or a UVA facility. During the early 1900s, the committee cracked down on students writing bad checks and sneaking booze into dance functions.

However, its actual powers are somewhat limited. The committee can’t compel testimony from a witness or subpoena documents, nor can it try cases of sexual misconduct or physical violence.

Over the past decade, the Honor Code’s favorability among the student body has declined. Students increasingly oppose the single sanction, recently approving some of the most significant changes in its 100-year history.

In 2013, for example, students voted to implement an informed retraction, which allows students to admit guilt within seven days of reading the formal accusation and take a two-semester leave, rather than being expelled.

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