Future of Honor hangs in the balance

Committee seeks heavier minority, athlete involvement, increased student body participation

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This article is the last of a three-part series. The first article addressed the honor system’s past and the second addressed present issues the Committee faces. This article discusses potential solutions to long-term problems the Committee faces.

The Honor Committee in its past three sessions has put heavy consideration into creating a formalized system for promoting a dialogue among “regular” students about the honor system. These students will provide a fresh perspective on what have previously been called discriminatory Honor tendencies, as the Committee continues to face a disproportionate reporting of honor offenses in the athletic, international and minority communities.

When the Committee has attempted to fix its flaws in the past — most notably in the Restore the Ideal Act last spring which sought to implement all-committee member juries as well as implement the informed retraction policy which failed a student referendum — it has failed to engage students with the reforms, said fourth-year College student Michelle Butler, the vice chair for community relations. Honor intends to increase student involvement in future reform efforts in an effort to bridge the gap between the committee and the students.

Disproportionate Perceptions

Fourth-year College student Haya Yaish, chair of the Minority Rights Coalition, said minority students perceive they are being disproportionately targeted by the Committee — though it is impossible to say definitively whether there is disproportionate reporting of minority students.

“Spotlighting minority students and athletes has long been a complaint at [the University] that is only recently being acknowledged and dealt with,” Yaish said in an email.

But whereas the relationship has been strained between the Committee and minority groups in the past, Yaish said, outreach efforts have improved this year.

Fourth-year College student Conor O’Boyle, vice chair for trials, said the Committee is working to build stronger relationships with minority student groups.

“We have come into our role and gained in our role relationships with a lot of different minority groups,” O’Boyle said. “[The Committee is] working on recruitment and making sure we have a diverse group of support officers.”

Fourth-year Education student Andi Chernau, vice chair for investigations, said the diversity of this year’s support officer pool was closer to the University’s overall proportion of minority students than in years past.

“One of the things we did this year is we mass-advertised our recruitment, so we got a lot more diversity in terms of that,” Chernau said.

Fourth-year College student Brittany Wengel, former athlete and vice chair for education, has launched a major initiative this year called Student Athletes Committed to Honor to discuss disproportionate reporting with student athletes.

Fourth-year College student Brandy Herald, a member of the crew team and of SACH, said athletes face issues of high visibility, since they either have some name recognition or tend to sit together in class and wear team apparel. Herald also said some faculty members had preconceived notions that students athletes cheat more, and SACH allowed her to hear from faculty about why the perception exists.

“[Athletes are not] trying to cheat the system [or] trying to get benefits, but [are] trying to have an open dialogue,” Herald said. “I don’t think athletes cheat as much as [the reporting rate suggests].”

International students face particular challenges adapting to American plagiarism rules and citation standards, Chernau said.

“One of the things that I very strongly believed in last year when I was running for Committee … was increasing education to international students,” Chernau said. “A lot of times students just have no idea.”

The Committee has made outreach a major theme of its term, and Yaish and the others said their efforts have begun to pay dividends.

Faculty, Relationships and Confidentiality

These outreach efforts, Chernau and Wengel said, have even extended to faculty.

“We are having some kind of module … that will help professors locate where their biases are,” Butler said. “We can say that we want to require it, but we have to talk to administration.”

Committee members, including Chair Evan Behrle, a fourth-year College student, have tried to confront the issue of faculty dissatisfaction with the honor system which had led to a decline in the number of honor offenses being reported in recent years.

Butler said faculty who go through the honor system do not appreciate the length of hearings required to meet state and federal legal standards for due process.

“[Faculty] go through this long process that doesn’t really have a clear benefit for them,” Butler said.

Butler said other faculty simply do not support the single sanction, and thus do not report students to the Committee on principle.

“I think we have a particular problem with faculty that come to U.Va. and don’t really buy into the system,” Butler said. “I think the [Informed Retraction] is definitely helping with [providing more leniency].”

Chernau said outreach efforts focus on explaining the honor system and trial process to faculty.

Butler said she has already heard positive feedback from some faculty members, especially new faculty, who appreciate the personal outreach.

“In the end, it’s all about buy-in,” Butler said.

Hung Juries, Internal Reforms

O’Boyle has continued to focus on inconsistent jury verdicts during Committee meetings this semester and maintains jury reform is the only conceivable major constitutional change the honor system would undergo this term. Currently, accused students have the constitutional right to select a random student jury, a jury of Honor Committee members or a mixture of the two.

A commission review of the Honor Committee in 2000 recommended moving toward only mixed juries. Chernau said the Committee has seen very few mixed juries, so it is unclear whether such a move would resolve inconsistent verdicts. However, she reported positive feedback from the few mixed jury cases that have occurred.

Mixed juries allow experienced Committee members who understand the bylaws to guide discussion during a trial. All-student juries vary widely in their application of facts in a case and many Committee members worry their rules are not fully understood by the students.

Despite the apparent practicality of mixed juries, requiring them could only be achieved through another student referendum — like that rejected by the student body in the spring.

Third-year College student Forrest Brown, a founding member of the Students’ Honor Caucus, said he thought students might find a proposal for mixed juries more palatable than an all-Committee member jury because it would offer the student body a check on honor trials.

“I think the student body correctly wanted there to be an outside student-body presence,” Brown said. “If members of the Committee were more often from outside the system itself, it might be different.”

O’Boyle expanded training for random student jurors to a full hour, rather than the 20-30 minutes of training previously required, but still says a more significant change needs to take place.

Butler said jurors could benefit from more mock cases, so they could better learn how to apply evidence to Committee standards, but she worried jurors, who already arrive at 9 a.m. and stay until late evening, would not be willing or able to sit for additional training. No amount of training, however, could get around students who cannot bring themselves to expel another student, even if they know the other student to be guilty, Butler said.

Brown also recommended an opt-in system for all-student juries, where students could choose to be in the jury pool. Those students would come for additional training at the beginning of the year and would likely see more cases, given the smaller pool.

“The people would be committed and probably smart,” Brown said of an opt-in system. “You would be much more likely to have an experienced juror.”

Convening a Convention

Butler emphasized that the Committee’s goals of increased student involvement is not a ploy to recruit student support from only those who will promote Honor’s future vision. Dissenting opinions are encouraged as well.

“There are times where [Committee members are] thinking over an issue and we come up blank,” Butler said. “This is a huge student community. There’s got to be an idea [somewhere].”

Even following the failure of the Restore the Ideal Act, Butler said, Committee members were more interested in gathering student input than upset the referendum failed.

“[We have] an earnest desire to hear from students,” Butler said.

The Committee has been planning a convention to try and bring a diverse group of students together to discuss flaws in the honor system and proposals to fix those issues. Butler said the Committee has contemplated being up-front about its low reporting rate as it advertises for the event, hoping to draw in students who understand the Committee hears their concerns.

“Honor works, but it doesn’t work as well as it could, and we’re frustrated about that and we want to do something about that,” Behrle said during a Committee meeting last month.

Chernau, however, said a 2012 survey of University students showed many had a positive opinion of the honor system. 60 percent of students said they had not witnessed an honor offense during their time on Grounds, and 22 percent were unsure if they had or not.

“When you take a step back and look at how the system is benefiting the students … it’s pretty damn positive,” Chernau said. “A lot of people do think positively about the honor system and how it benefits them as a student.”

Butler said she wanted to be cautious about not alienating those students for whom the honor system is currently working. A Committee too up front about the system’s flaws may chip away at support from those who do not have qualms with the current system.

Students, O’Boyle said, need to feel the day-to-day impact of the honor system on their lives as students for the community of trust to be effective.

“Making sure every student knows here that Honor cares about integrity as a whole” should be part of the Honor Committee’s goal, O’Boyle said, including creating a “culture of trust.”

The Honor Committee will likely have its convention as an open event for all students sometime late next semester.


Published December 5, 2013 in FP test, News

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