Two members of Honor Committee debate single sanction policy

Honor, Jefferson Society co-host debate in Jefferson Hall

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Honor Committee representatives Owen Gallogly, left, and Jeffrey Warren, right, debate the single sanction system in Jefferson Hall.

Benjamin Burke | Cavalier Daily

The Honor Committee and the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society co-hosted a debate about Honor’s single-sanction system Tuesday evening in Jefferson Hall. 

The debate topic was documented on the Facebook event as: “The Honor system at the University of Virginia should preserve the single sanction.” The single-sanction system is the policy that if a student is found guilty of an Honor offense — lying, cheating or stealing — at trial, they will be expelled from the University. 

Owen Gallogly, a Law student and Honor Committee representative, defended the single sanction system. Jeffrey Warren, a fourth-year College student and the Honor Committee’s vice chair for hearings, argued against the single-sanction system, in favor of a multi-sanction system. 

Devin Rossin, a fourth-year College student and Honor Committee chair, introduced the debate. He said the Honor system is celebrating its 175th birthday this year, and that in all its history, it has operated under a single-sanction system. However, this has been greatly challenged in recent years. He said that this decision ultimately belongs to current students. 

“The most defining trait of the Honor system is that it is, has, and always will be the fact that it's entirely student-run,” Rossin said. “This system belongs to you, and what does it mean to not lie, cheat, or steal 175 years after the inception of our system is in your hands.”  

Gallogly kicked off the debate with the philosophical underpinnings of his defense of the single-sanction system. He said that the belief that lying, cheating and stealing are absolute wrongs is uniquely rare in that it is universal across most societies and cultures throughout history. He said that this ideal undergirds the Honor system. 

Referring to the Honor system, Gallogly said, “It represents our aspiration to achieve a culture of perfect ethical behavior that we know to be simultaneously impossible and invaluable, both achievable and worthy of pursuit.”

He referred to the single-sanction, informed retraction and conscientious retraction systems as working together to produce a just system. 

With informed retraction, a student who has come under investigation for an Honor offense may choose to admit guilt and take two semesters off from the University, but still be allowed to return. With conscientious retraction, a student who has not been reported to the Honor Committee for an offense may admit their guilt and make amends without the consequence of expulsion. 

“The sanction reflects our aspiration to foster a community of trust completely free of dishonest behavior, while the CR and the IR acknowledge our own fallible humanity,” Gallogly said. “Just as the single sanction system is justified and reinforced by the retractions, so too are the retractions justified and reinforced by the single sanction system.” 

Gallogly also said he wanted to debunk the myth that the single-sanction system does not enjoy democratic support amongst students.

“When faced with a concrete choice between a single-sanction system and a multiple-sanction alternative, the vast majority of students have come to the same conclusion I have,” Gallogly said. 

Warren then gave his argument. He mentioned the significant gap between cheating rates and reporting rates. He cited a 2006 study in which faculty were asked to recall the last time they were faced with a suspected example of cheating. He said that of those certain they had observed cheating, only 16 percent reported it to the Committee. Of those who merely suspected cheating, only one percent reported it to the Committee. Warren said that when asked for their reasons, there were five major responses among the faculty. 

“All five of these reasons can really be traced back in one way or another to the sanction we impose,” Warren said. 

About the 65 percent who said they didn’t have enough evidence to report the suspected honor offense, Warren said that this indicates that they either didn’t personally believe the strength of the evidence merited expulsion or thought a jury would remain unconvinced. Warren also said that for the 32 percent who said that the single-sanction provided too harsh a punishment for the perceived infraction, these professors believed that expulsion under the single-sanction was sometimes unproportional to the offense.  

Of the 23 percent that said they weren’t confident the guilty student would be punished, Warren said this connects to the evidentiary standard required by a single-sanction system. 

“It’s a stretch to imagine that the single sanction really has no bearing on the verdict that juries return,” Warren said. “The more extreme the sanction, the more ironclad the evidence must be.” 

Of the 22 percent who said that the reporting process was too time-consuming, Warren attributed this too to the process required by such a high evidentiary standard demanded by the single-sanction system. 

Finally, of the 21 percent who had qualms with the single-sanction system, Warren said, “they didn’t want to be responsible for having a student dismissed from the University.” 

Warren argued that inconsistent reporting amongst faculty leads to unfair application of the Honor system. 

“Even if you believe in retributive justice, you must surely believe in evenhanded retribution,” Warren said. “If one is to be punished for a crime, so should all who commit it.” 

He also mentioned the benefits of rehabilitation in the Honor system. 

“It is just common sense to give fallible, mistake-prone young people who are still developing more than one chance at anything, but particularly at developing themselves,” Warren said. 

During the Q&A portion of the debate, an audience member noted that the 2006 study cited by Warren occurred before IR and CR were introduced, and thus fail to subvert the current system. Warren responded that this is the most recent evidence available, and that a similar study has been conducted recently and will be released in the next several weeks. 

Another audience member said it seemed that cheating would occur more frequently should a multi-sanction system be put in place. Warren responded by emphasizing the primacy of evenhanded retribution over perfect deterrence. 

“I think that even-handed justice is more important than the small increases in cheating we might see, which would then be reported to the committee and be addressed,” Warren said. 

During Warren’s rebuttal time, he said the IR is not a sufficient counterbalance to the harshness of the single-sanction system because it can sometimes incentivize innocent students to plead guilty so as to avoid the risk of expulsion.

“What if they didn’t even commit the offense but they know that the evidence against them looks pretty strong and looks like they did, and then they’re overwhelmed by the possibility of maybe being found guilty at a hearing?” Warren said. 

Warren also responded to Gallogly’s argument that the single-sanction enjoys democratic support. He said that students have an even lower reporting rate than faculty.

“While they may believe in the single-sanction system in the abstract, they certainly don’t buy into it or believe in it in fact,” Warren said. 

In his rebuttal, Gallogly acknowledged the challenges of low reporting rates. But he said that preserving the culture of Honor was more important than perfect enforcement of the Honor Code.

“I don’t think that in the name of making sure that everyone gets some sort of punishment for cheating, we should abandon the effort to reach the unkeepable promise,” Gallogly said. 

He also crystallized the core of the debate. 

“The crux of the difference in this debate revolves around the purpose of the system,” Gallogly said. “So to me, the purpose of the system is not to catch all cheaters. The goal of Honor to me is to create and protect the environment … the culture of Honor at this University.”

Olivier Weiss, a third-year College student and debate and oratory chair for the Jefferson Society, said both organizations had a reason to host the debate. 

“Honor, of course has an incredibly important role in effectuating student self-governance here at the University,” Weiss said. “And the Jefferson Society also has an important role in elevating enhancing discourse here at the University and providing a forum for these kinds of discussions.”

In an interview with The Cavalier Daily after the debate, Rossin said that the purpose of the event was to allow students to hear both sides of the issue. 

“I think something like this, where students can hear deep and nuanced concerns from two people who have a large degree of familiarity with the system on two different sides of the aisle, would lead to hopefully a more substantive understanding of the process,” Rossin said. 

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