The Cavalier Daily
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Creating change from the inside out

RACE HAS become a dirty word at the University these days. In recent news concerning admissions policies, the presence of racial preference has created more bitter conflict and name-calling than constructive discussion. But now, a new area of contention concerning racial preference has come up. On Sunday the honor system was featured in The Washington Post's Metro section ("Questioning U-Va.'s Honor," Oct. 3).

The article reported on questions of racial bias in Honor Committee cases and verdicts. It cited 1998-99 Committee statistics showing that 63 percent of students expelled for honor violations last year were black, Hispanic or Asian, and that 97 percent of case initiators were white.

The Committee is made up of different students from a variety of backgrounds. Unfortunately, it is possible that some of those students may have racial biases. But the possibility of racial bias -- alleged in the article by African-American Affairs Dean M. Rick Turner and backed up by The Washington Post on the basis of one year's statistics -- does not make the Committee and the system ineffective or unfair.

Racial bias is a problem that extends far past the University community and the control of the Committee. In reality, the Committee has no bearing on the circumstances in which honor charges are conceived.

If any person feels an honor offense has been committed, they may file a charge -- no questions asked. Because the decision to charge is completely subjective, the accuser's personal beliefs, racial preference included, may play a role. The Committee can't change this, and therefore must deal with each and every case brought to it in the same way.

If a professor distrusts Hispanic students and therefore accuses one of an honor violation, the Committee has no choice but to examine all the facts and make a decision about the case. The Committee has no way of proving that the accusation was made because of the student's race. But the Committee is responsible for investigating the case to the best of its ability in order to bring about justice -- if, in fact, the professor's motives were driven only by race, the Committee's investigation should vindicate the student.

The Committee brought 30 cases to trial during the 1998-99 academic year. Of those cases, eight were brought against black students, 12 against white students, nine against Asian students and one against a Hispanic student.

Of those brought to trial, seven white students, seven Asian students, four black students and one Hispanic student were found guilty. The percentages themselves (58.3 percent, 77.8 percent, 50 percent and 100 percent, respectively) prove that the sample evaluated was far too small to draw any accurate conclusions. The percentages would show that there were large numbers of Asian and Hispanic students being discriminated against unfairly in honor cases. But one cannot make this judgment when the sample in question only includes 30 students.

According to The Washington Post, Don McCabe, professor of management at Rutgers University, said that about 100 public universities in the nation have traditional, strict honor systems run primarily by students. He also said that the University is unique in that, along with the Virginia Military Institute, it may be one of few schools that expel guilty students on a first offense.

No system, especially one run entirely by students, can be perfect. Some of the case initiators and jury members may have racial biases. This only will change through increased minority participation in the honor system and, more importantly, the Committee itself. Currently, two Asian students and one black student are on the 21-person committee.

Minority students must join groups they believe to be unjust in order to create change from the inside out. In addition, the Committee must see to it that minority students are educated on the positives of the honor system and the impact they can have if they get involved. While the number of cases brought against minority students can't directly be affected, minority representation on the Committee will aid in providing fairer trials for accused minority students.

Sadly, no amount of education or discussion can remedy every case of racial bias at the University. But the honor system is nowhere near the point of being labeled a lost cause. With increased minority representation on the Committee and a commitment to fair, in-depth investigations, race will cease to be that dirty word we often times try to ignore.

(Erin Perucci is an associate editor for The Cavalier Daily.)


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