A degree of injustice

The acquittal of Johnathan Perkins highlights the inadequacy of the honor system

Last spring, then Law student Johnathan Perkins wrote a letter to the editor to the Virginia Law Weekly in which he alleged that he was a victim of racial bias at the hands of University Police. He also submitted a formal complaint to University Police about this supposed incident.

When Perkins subsequently admitted to fabricating his account, many members of the University community assumed he was clearly in violation of the University's honor code and would have the degree he was scheduled to receive in May revoked. Yet an honor trial conducted during the summer found Perkins not guilty of an honor violation. Consequently, he was allowed to receive his law degree with nothing so much as a reprimand attached indicating he had failed to live up to the standards of the University's "community of trust." This outcome to the Perkins saga sends a devastating signal to the student body and the broader public about the notion of "honor" that exists at the University, and it offers another example of why the honor system's single sanction policy is insufficient for upholding a meaningful level of trust and integrity.

Although specific details about Perkins' honor proceedings are not yet publicly available, it is likely he was acquitted because the jury hearing his case decided the act in question did not meet the threshold for significance that is necessary for convicting an individual of an honor offense. This criterion for conviction exists because of the severity of the honor system's sanctioning policy - if a student is found guilty of a violation, he is either expelled from the University or, in the case of an alumnus, will have his degree revoked.

This standard ensures that students guilty of minor acts of lying, cheating or stealing are not subject to permanent exclusion from the University community. The level of severity involved in such acts, however, varies widely. And because of the single sanction, juries unable to establish that expulsion or degree revocation would be appropriate punishments for an obvious act of lying, cheating or stealing are forced to acquit students of any wrongdoing whatsoever.

This is almost certainly what happened in Perkins' case. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether a student who completed three years of grueling coursework at one of the most prestigious law schools in the country should have his degree revoked for fabricating a police complaint and publicizing the imaginary incident. Yet there should be no question as to whether such a flagrant act of dishonesty can be considered honorable.

What Perkins did in selfishly attempting to draw attention to himself could have put the careers of University police officers at risk had the department's internal investigation failed to turn up compelling evidence to refute his testimony. Moreover, the department's investigation undoubtedly absorbed money and time that could have been better spent investigating actual crimes that have occurred within the University community.

The honor system's inflexible and archaic sanctioning system, however, meant that a jury unwilling to mete out the ultimate academic punishment to Perkins was stuck absolving him entirely of his dishonor. If the honor system had a multi-tiered approach to sanctioning similar to the University Judiciary Committee, it would have been possible to convey that Perkins' action was a clear violation of the "community of trust," but one that perhaps warranted a note of reprimand in his academic file rather than a full revocation of his degree.

This, in turn, would have allowed future employers to judge for themselves whether the dishonorable character Perkins displayed in this incident was grave enough to keep them from hiring him. As it stands, though, the University community has sent the signal that it simply does not consider Perkins' action to be a breach of its idea of honor, which raises the question of what possible action could be considered dishonorable if not lying to the police and the student body.

To its credit, the University administration has announced it will provide details of Perkins' action and his subsequent honor trial to any bar to which he applies. It reflects poorly upon a school that claims to value student self-governance, however, that such unilateral action on the administration's part was necessary to correct for the glaring flaws in the student-run honor system.

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