From bad to worse

It was with a great deal of interest that I received an e-mail from the University recently about a proposed reform to the honor system. Having spent seven years at the University as a Double Hoo — undergraduate and law school — I have a natural interest in its activities, but the honor system was particularly my interest. I was a counsel for six of my seven years, defending nearly two dozen students accused of honor offenses. More than that, I co-founded the student group that led the opposition to the single sanction while I was there, and in 2007, we put forward a true multi-sanction system that fell just 62 votes short of a majority of the student body — less than 1 percent of those voting. Since graduating and entering the “real world,” my confidence that the single sanction is an anachronism that does far more harm to the University than good has only been re-confirmed, repeatedly. So, Honor-related news always interests me.

At first, I was excited to see the Honor Committee seeming to grow away from its unhealthy obsession with expulsion — but then I read the details, and my heart sank and my jaw dropped. As a single sanction opponent I recognize that any weakening of the sanction makes future reforms easier and more likely, and with that in mind I desperately wanted to find a way to support this proposal, but searching as hard as I can, I am afraid that support just is not there.

It is clear what the Honor Committee is trying to do with this proposal. Its informed retraction proposal is its effort to seek the votes of single sanction opponents — people I believe now make up a majority of the student body — without scaring away its supporters, while the jury reform is seeking to lock down the support of those who find the system too weak in its current operation. Yet, in seeking to appease both sides of the debate, the Honor Committee has failed to satisfy either, and with good reason.

Informed retraction is a disaster of a proposal. Despite the Committee’s lovely chart outlining the “two students” going through the system, my years as a counsel taught me there are far more than two types of students who get accused. In addition to the guilty who are dishonest through the process and the guilty who are honest through the process, there are the truly innocent. The trial serves as little protection for them — are we to trust a jury made up of Committee members who seem to think only the guilty are accused? Moreover, do we honestly believe that an innocent student, faced with the uncertainty of a trial where he or she may be expelled, or the certainty of a return to school, will not choose that certainty — and lie by admitting to something he or she did not do? Informed Retraction may encourage the guilty to repent and be honest, but it is at the expense of encouraging the innocent to become liars. A system that protects the guilty at the expense of the innocent is a corrupt system, and that is precisely what the informed retraction will create.

The second half of the proposal, jury reform, is even worse. I am sorry that faculty and the Committee members are upset that students are acquitted, but guess what, that is how a trial works. Judgment by your peers is the only way to ensure fair judgment. Committee members are mostly self-selected — most Honor Committees are elected without contest — and are not representative of the student body as a whole. Juries are far more representative — though this would be even more true if single sanction opponents were allowed to serve on juries — and help ensure that the honor code applied is the one believed in by the student body, not just the Committee. A lack of convictions is never a good reason to change the system. If the Committee truly believes juries are unprepared and unprofessional — a charge I would not completely disagree with — then they need to improve juror orientation and training, require more vigilant watchfulness of the jurors during trial by the trial chair and counsel for both sides, and take other actions to further engage the jurors in each case. But this is much harder to do than just getting rid of juries altogether, and it seems this Honor Committee is more interested in the easy way out.

As a single sanction opponent, I was hoping this proposal would be one I could support. It is not, and I hope students of all persuasions on the ultimate sanction issue recognize the severe flaws of the system this proposal envisions. I encourage all students to vote no.

Disclosure: I am a practicing attorney, and within my practice occasionally represent students accused of honor offenses. I do not believe the passage of this proposal will affect my law practice, but the possibility does warrant a disclosure of my potential vested interest.

Sam Leven is a graduate of the College ‘07 and Law School Class of ‘10. He was an Honor Counsel and the founder of Hoos Against Single Sanction.

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