YOUR FINAL few weeks here at the University can lead to a lot of reflection. You begin to think about how the University has changed you and how you in turn would like to see changes in the University. Most of the latter is simply idle speculation - few of these ideas will ever see the light of day. But at the very least they can be interesting ideas to kick around in your head. With this in mind, you and I need to have one last talk about our University's honor system.
There are a lot of reasons that, 50 years from now, I'll be proud to say I am a U.Va. graduate. Certainly for some students, the University's honor system is one of the defining features they will take with them for the rest of their lives. The honor system is an admirable tradition, but I don't place it in the same University pantheon alongside the Rotunda, the Lawn and certain other places and ideas unique to our school. This is most likely due to the fact that, at present, the honor system is a decaying institution.
Student voters hit the nail on the head last month in refusing to remove the seriousness clause attached to cheating. No one on the Honor Committee has shown the will to get serious about the real changes the University needs to make in order to restore this system to health.
In a way, one could argue that attaching the word "honor" to the system we know was a bad idea from the start. "Honor" is a loaded word to begin with. To judge whether a student deserves a place at the University based on one person's or one group's concept of honor is an even riskier business. Then when you look at the consequence for getting caught - expulsion - you wonder just how far students are willing to tread on the thin ice of moral absolutism.
There are only a few moral absolutes in this world, and it's a safe bet that none of them are man-made. Helping the needy is always right. Cheating on your wife is always wrong. Loving thy neighbor is always right. And of course, cheating is always wrong. It is perfectly acceptable to hold this correct belief that cheating is a morally improper action, without exception. The problems arrive when you deal out consequences with the same degree of absolutism.
While cheating, lying and stealing - as concepts - are always wrong, they come in a wide array of degrees of seriousness and intensity. Stealing a copy of an exam is not the same as plagiarism, which is not the same as copying a problem set. The only thing these three acts have in common is that they are all morally incorrect. But because these three acts are drastically different in seriousness and intensity, they each warrant different punishments.
At present, the honor system metes out one punishment only - the equivalent of an academic death penalty. While expulsion is not the literal end of one's academic career, it clearly has brutal effects on one's life in both a learning and an emotional sense. In the real world that begins off-Grounds, the government does not execute criminals for theft. In an academic sense, that is exactly what the single sanction calls for. Yet what are the different violations of the honor system but different forms of theft - whether you are stealing someone's trust in lying to them, robbing them of their possessions by pilfering their wallet, or stealing someone's hard work by cheating. A mostly-silent majority of students rightly believes that the single sanction of expulsion is too extreme, but they refuse to speak up. And the system suffers.
Rather than allow the decay to continue, the Committee should examine changing the greatest hindrance to the system's success - the single sanction. Cheating should meet swift and harsh punishment. But such punishment should be fair and commensurate with the violation. It should not be the reflection of a narrow, idealized, morally absolutist perception of what constitutes "honor."
I hope I never arrive at a point in my life where I am so sanctimonious as to criticize other students - as others have recently done on this very page - for their disagreement with me over my concept of honor. Honor is a personal value. For most of us, it extends far, far beyond the narrow confines of lying, cheating or stealing. Honor has at least as much to do with these three actions as it does with the manner in which you carry yourself and how you relate to others.
The honor system is an institution that is worth saving. It is a living, breathing model of how students and faculty should be able to freely trust one another and live in a community of mutual respect. In order for it to reach this goal once again, we need to stop choking it under the weight of the single sanction. This is not a call to water-down the system - as some will undoubtedly claim - but a chance to let this noble ideal reach its full potential.
(Timothy DuBoff's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)