In midst of honor
Throughout the fall semester, there was a spirited debate on the proposed changes to the honor system at the University, which were approved by the Honor Committee and are now dependent on a student vote. Two reforms, informed retraction and jury reform, were presented as a joint plan to combat growing concerns about the effectiveness of the Committee. Informed retraction would allow a student accused of an honor offense to take a one year suspension rather than go to trial, while the jury reform would alter the composition of the trial juries from randomly selected students to elected honor representatives.
Soon after, I wrote an article critical of jury reform, which I found to be counter to the University’s ideals of student self-government. Russell Bogue wrote a column in response to mine expressing the opinions of many in the Committee, who thought I did not understand the full scope of the problems that jury reform sought to address. They did not think random student juries were capable of being fluent with the complicated by-laws that are supposed to govern a jury’s decision, and that many students’ aversion to inflicting the single-sanction allowed some guilty students to escape from trials where they were obviously guilty. Often jurors are unaware that the Committee does expel students regularly and are uncomfortable doing so. This damages the fairness and consistency of the system. The current system encourages students to lie their way through the process to manipulate an under-informed jury and escape consequences, while honest students receive the full force of the single-sanction.
Despite being convinced of the validity of these problems, I was still not satisfied by the solution. I could not be convinced that putting all of the power of the honor system in such a small group of people was philosophically acceptable. While Russell argued that members of the Committee are University students and are therefore representative, I disagree. Although they are students, they represent a small subset that have the time to dedicate themselves to a non-academic activity. Students who cannot make such a large commitment — many athletes, musicians, students with jobs or demanding academic schedules — still deserve to be part of the process. Accused students have the right to a jury that represents the diversity of the whole student body, a requirement that would not be met by a jury of only Committee members. Limiting selection of jurors damages the integrity of the system.
I also do not believe a group of people that all know each other and interact frequently should have unilateral control over so powerful a system. The power to expel students is immense, and demands a check to keep it from being abused. Currently this check is the random nature of the jury. This ensures that jurors are unfamiliar with each other and the accused student, providing a diversity of perspectives and preventing outside factors or personal feelings from influencing a decision. A jury of Commmittee members would restrict the pool to the point where both of these checks would be at risk. The danger of over-consensus among honor members has been reflected in my experience debating this issue. With almost no exceptions, every member of the Committee I have talked to has strongly supported jury reform, while the vast majority of non-honor members have been opposed to it. This is partially due to the Committee members’ obviously different perspective on the issue, it is also because the change appears to be an attempt by the Committee to consolidate all the power of the system. The counselors, committee members, advisors, and educators are all full-time members of honor, and the addition of the jury to this list would leave the average student with no possibility of participation in the system. The Committee cannot become the endeavor of a select few students alone and remain legitimate, a fact the proposed change does not acknowledge.
There are possible middle grounds to be explored. If jury education is a problem, why not have a more extensive mandatory online education system for first-years to learn about the honor system, similar to the alcohol education course we all completed the summer before first-year? While there are some processes intended to acquaint new students with honor, making it a more involved and extensive process would give juries a stronger background, and make their training less of a crash-course in honor and more of a refresher. Or you could include an honor representative in each jury, who could help the less experienced jurors through the process and ensure that they fulfill their duties without robbing the general student body of their involvement. I want to encourage people to start having this discussion themselves, because while it is easy not to think about the importance of Honor to our school identity, it is central to our Jeffersonian ideals. Whether you agree with the proposal or not, you should be informed about it and honor in general and make your voice heard when issues like this are up for debate.
Forrest Brown’s column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily.