Honoring commitments

The reforms being considered by the Honor Committee would better improve enforcement of the honor code

The November 9 column titled “The jury’s out” offered a critique of the current reforms being considered by the Honor Committee. For those who did not read the article and are not aware of the reforms, they can be summarized as follows: first, that an option called the “informed retraction” will be open to a student after he or she has been accused of an honor offense; and second, that the possibility of random student juries or mixed juries will be eliminated, to be replaced with juries composed of only Committee members. The informed retraction reform will allow accused students who admit their guilt before trial to be rewarded for this honesty by a less severe punishment — namely, a year of suspension rather than expulsion from the school.

In the piece, the author argued that while he applauds the informed retraction, he cannot support the decision to eliminate random student juries. The thrust of his argument is that random student juries ensure that the honor system operates with the consent and input of the entire student body, and that it is essential to the healthy functioning of the system that students not intimately involved with honor processes be allowed to make critical decisions in the process. However, the author has missed the part of the point of the honor reforms, basing his argument on faulty premises that could mislead the student body into making the wrong decision when it comes time to vote on the amendments.

One of the primary purposes of the reforms, other than to increase student reporting, is to address underlying injustices in the system. Over the past several years, those most intimately involved with the honor system have noticed a disturbing trend: Students who have clearly committed an honor offense will often lie and manipulate their way through the investigations and trial process. When faced with a random student jury — composed of students who often do not fully understand the honor bylaws and burdens of proof — these accused students can mount a deceptive case in their own defense and play off of the jury’s reticence to lay down the single sanction punishment. As such, by further lying in order to cover up their original act of dishonesty, accused students can abuse the honor system to maintain their place at the school.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are students who commit an honor offense and fully admit to their mistake. Throughout the entire trial process, they are remorseful, honest, and straightforward. Yet, because of their honesty, they are duly convicted of the offense and expelled from the school. These students are in essence punished for doing the right thing, while dishonest students game the system to their own advantage. It has thus become clear to the Committee that there is a fundamentally unjust incentive structure in the honor system: Students have a large incentive to lie throughout the entire process, because they have nothing to lose. Either the lying pays off and the student can keep his or her spot at the University, or the student is accused anyway and leaves the school; honesty is de-incentivized.

The new reforms are an attempt to address this misaligned incentive structure. With the reforms in place, a student who has committed an honor offense has two options: He or she can be honest, an act which would be rewarded with the less severe punishment of suspension; or, the student can try to lie through the trial process, as before. But this is where the jury reform comes in. If the student chooses to lie throughout the process, he or she will be faced with an experienced jury — a group of elected Committee representatives with intimate knowledge of the system, full awareness of the necessary burdens of proof, and a demonstrated commitment to upholding honor at the University. In essence, these reforms reward honesty and make dishonesty more difficult to pull off. They are not perfect remedies — the incentive to lie will always be strong — but they are a large step in the right direction.

Therefore, the reforms go hand-in-hand. An informed retraction without jury reform leaves open the option of lying and gaming the system by playing off of uninformed jurors; jury reform without the informed retraction does nothing to reward honesty. Moreover, student involvement in the system is not diminished. Committee members are, in fact, still students at the University, as are all of the support officers — counsel, advisors, and educators — who attend to and administer the processes of the honor system. Arguing that random student jurors should be allowed solely on the vague merits of “student involvement” ignores that inherently student-run nature of the honor system while simultaneously working against a system of reforms that promises to address some salient injustices in the current system. I encourage the student body to support these reforms in order to create a smoother and, most importantly, more just honor system.

Russell Bogue’s column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at r.bogue@cavalierdaily.com.

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