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Student juries crippled without clause

Any number of impulses stimulate us every second. Some of our decisions are coldly calculated. Others are capricious. What we decide to do at one moment may be infinitely different from what we might decide to do, under the same conditions, in the very next moment.

Education School Honor Rep. Jim Haley has proposed an amendment to the Honor Committee constitution to eliminate the seriousness clause in cases of intentional academic cheating. This proposal overlooks human nature. It is too formulaic and will impair the honor system by limiting the student jury's autonomy.

There are currently three criteria for determining an honor offense. The jury votes on whether the act occurred and if the violator intentionally committed it. But that's not the whole story: To impose the single sanction -- removing someone from the University -- the jury must vote on seriousness.

Related Links
  • Honor Committee Website
  • In a personal interview, Haley reasoned that all intentional acts of academic cheating are serious. Thus, it's not a matter for the jury to deal with. He's wrong. The jury will be stripped of its power to consider mitigating circumstances. Suppose an emergency comes up and I have to dash off some answers for a problem set. If I can't get in touch with my professor to ask for an extension, I might just opt to copy answers out of the back of the book. It's cheating, but given the duress of the moment, it hardly seems worthy of expulsion. Without seriousness to save me, I am as susceptible to getting kicked out as that guy who downloaded his term paper off the Internet.

    Determining act and intent is an exercise in fact-finding, while determining seriousness is normative. Without seriousness, juries can't empathize with those they are judging. Instead, they examine circumstances without even the chance to be compassionate. Students deserve second chances in marginal cases. When someone -- genuinely repentant -- commits a marginally serious act, there is good reason to believe that he will reform his ways. Without the compassion and second chance seriousness offers, the Committee eliminates the possibility for character growth.

    Justice should be proportional. This means both that a punishment should be suited to the crime and that people who commit similar acts should be punished similarly. Seriousness allows juries to explore proportionality issues rather than forcing them to use the single sanction in all cases.

    Kicking someone out of the University is a pretentious act. It's saying: "I, who am good enough to be here, deem you unworthy of being here." A jury of peers, combined with the seriousness clause, is the perfect way to counteract the pretension of expelling someone for an honor offense.

    But stripped of its power to decide on seriousness, this vehicle of democracy -- a student jury -- can't work its magic. If the jury only needed to determine a person's act, this could be left to investigators. That wouldn't be justice. The seriousness clause puts the issue in the hands of the jury, allowing jurors to ask: "Can we tolerate this in our community?" If the jury can't ask this question, it has no authority.

    Provided that the proposal passes the Committee, it will go before the student body in a referendum. Haley noted in the interview that "when the jury panel votes on seriousness, they are deciding the community's standard." So, he reasoned, why not just appeal to the students to create its standard? That's where this proposal fails to recognize human complexity. We can't foresee all the curveballs that future juries will encounter. Each case ought to be decided individually, not by a sweeping referendum.

    While all cheating is wrong, not all cheaters should be expelled from the University. Most justice systems have gradations of punishment to compensate for this, but at the University we have only the single sanction. Since we can't rank the gravity of the offense, we must at the very least cherish our one standard for punishment: seriousness. Seriousness is necessary to counterbalance the severity of the single sanction.

    Without seriousness, we have a system that is too rigid. Instead of the positive community we strive for, we are left paranoid, because the smallest slip up can cost you your education and your career.

    Eliminating seriousness could create a community of distrust - one without second chances, one that creates paranoia, and one that hinders student self-governance in the form of the student jury.

    Act and intent, plus seriousness, is a recipe for integrity in the honor process. Barring any of those, the honor jury loses a powerful tool. On one hand, it determines if the respondent is guilty; on the other, the jury decides if that offense is even important. There's no reason to amputate one of honor's limbs.

    (Jeffrey Eisenberg's column appears Mondays in The Cavalier Daily.)