Defending the single sanction

THIS YEAR, students have once again proposed to eliminate the single sanction for honor offenses. All students will be asked to vote on a non-binding referendum that asks voters whether they would support a multiple-sanction honor system. The proposal leaves many of the details up in the air, but it would preserve a separate Honor Committee and student juries. I would like to offer a few observations on the proposal. I am writing in my individual capacity, and in no way do I speak for the Honor Committee as a whole. Moreover, I write as someone who recognizes that there are significant flaws with the single sanction as it is currently implemented.

In short, I believe this proposal would be disastrous for the honor system at the University. First, it would institute an unwieldy process inferior to the one at other universities that have multiple-sanction systems. Even those who are in favor of a multiple-sanction system should reject this one as ill-conceived. Second, it would rob the honor system of its most potent symbol, leaving it to wither into irrelevance.

This proposal should be rejected, if for no other reason than it keeps random-student juries in place. It is extremely difficult to find an example of another university in America that permits random students to assign a variable sanction in any kind of disciplinary proceeding. Because all such proceedings are confidential under federal law, random students lack the context to effectively apply a completely discretionary sanction. By contrast, the University Judiciary Committee (UJC), which has multiple sanctions at its disposal, employs a panel of trained, experienced judges in its cases. Other schools recognize the wisdom in this arrangement; there may be an honor system out there that uses student juries to apply a multiple-sanction system, but I am not aware of it.

In addition to its functional flaws, this proposal also fails to take into account the importance of the single sanction as an institutional symbol. The single sanction has played a major part in preserving Honor's continued saliency through the extraordinary changes our University has undergone over the past 50 years. The honor system at the University is remarkable for its continued vitality in the face of a culture that finds it increasingly difficult to treat college students as adults. Honor is a defining characteristic of the student experience at the University in a way that can no longer be found at any other large university. The constancy of the sanction connects us as students with those who have gone before us, and it serves as the symbol of an ideal to which generations have aspired.

As new students arrive every year, the single sanction communicates the fact that students here taking lying, cheating, and stealing seriously. I have observed this personally. At orientation last year, several students at the law school expressed amazement at how much more important honor was at the University as compared to their undergraduate institutions. For them, the single sanction is the institutional expression of that importance. They were certainly not alone.

As I mentioned above, I recognize that our honor system also has its weaknesses. I am open to ideas that would address these weaknesses, and I believe that options like the informed retraction as a potential solution should be explored. Moreover, I think that it is important that the student body be periodically presented with a thoughtful, workable alternative to the single sanction that would effect beneficial change to the system without destroying it.

This proposal is not such an alternative. While it recognizes the weaknesses in our current system, it does not represent an improvement. Moreover, it would entirely eliminate one of the cornerstones of the honor system without making any effort to replace it. This proposal reflects the false assumption that the honor system itself plays no role in educating incoming students about the importance of honor. Most students at the University do not come from high schools with honor systems. For the vast majority of students, their first exposure to an honor system will be ours. It is therefore critically important that the honor system, as an institution, not only reflect the values of students, but also continue to impart them.

For an institution rooted so deeply in the University's history and experience, the details of our honor system have undergone a remarkable amount of change over the past 165 years. Its administration, its structure, and even the definition of an honor offense have changed with the times. Only two things have remained constant: the honor system has always been student-run, and students found guilty of honor offenses have always been asked to leave.

The honor system has frequently adapted to changes to the student body, to our values and to our culture. These adaptations are necessary and keep the honor system strong. The system must continue to adapt in the future; none of those variables will remain static. However, we must also take care that we do not alter those core constants of the honor system unnecessarily, leaving it rootless and impotent.

Jay Tricket is the Vice Chair for Trials on the Honor Committee. He is a student in the Law School.

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