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An honorable reputation

I FIRMLY believe that the single sanction is the principal source of the honor system's strength and longevity, and that dismantling it would be an extremely damaging, if not fatal, blow to the system. I am no blind idealist who believes that all is right with the honor system -- far from it. As two-time chair of the Honor Committee, I saw first-hand the challenges the honor system faces, and I realize that some of those challenges are created by the single sanction. The overly (and increasingly) complicated procedures the Honor Committee uses, for instance, are a direct result of the due process required for a penalty of expulsion. Nevertheless, my extensive experience with the honor system has convinced me that the single sanction is the proper sanction for an honor offense in the 21st century.

Last week in these pages, Josh Hess argued that many of the arguments advanced against the single sanction are smokescreens, arguments that have intuitive merit but little hard evidence to back them up ("Continued commitment to high standards," Nov. 17). He offered the low student initiation rates argument, the academic "death penalty" argument and the "reluctant-to-convict jury" argument as examples of these unsupported arguments. The real question behind this debate, however, is whether we as a student body are willing to continue to hold each other to high standards. I think that our answer to this question should be a resounding yes. Why?

The central tenet of the University's honor system is the creation of a community of trust, a community that is unique among large state institutions (and growing increasingly unique among colleges of any type). Although we know that some dishonest students go unpunished, the prevailing assumption about University students is that they are honest. This assumption supports the benefits students receive from the honor system, such as take-home exams, unproctored tests and general trust from teachers. It also supports the reputation University students have beyond Charlottesville for honesty and integrity.

Changing the single sanction will dramatically undermine the assumption of student honesty, because proven liars, cheaters and stealers will remain members of the University community and become members of our alumni. Our community of trust can exist only if those who are proven beyond a reasonable doubt to have violated it are excluded permanently from that community. Indeed, the purpose of our honor system is not a traditional system of punishment, like the University Judiciary Committee; instead, it is a unique and emphatic statement that lying, cheating and stealing will not be tolerated in our community of trust.

Lying, cheating and stealing particularly have no place in the context of an academic community. The very notion of academic learning and working is grounded in the idea of doing our own work. The single sanction shows how seriously we take the idea that students should earn their University degree without any unfair advantage over their classmates. The remarkable thing about the honor system is that the vast majority of students do just that -- they earn their degrees through hard work and late nights, not through paper mills and furtive glances at a neighbor's test. Several scientific surveys, conducted both by the Honor Committee itself and by external research organizations, show the rate of cheating is lower here than at our peer institutions and, indeed, than at most colleges of any type. To me, this means that the vast majority of students want to learn in an atmosphere where cheating is discouraged and punished, where all students are held to a higher standard. The single sanction is our statement of that higher standard: We want to be surrounded by students who have stuck by their pledge to be honorable.

Opponents of the single sanction are, at base, arguing for lowering our expectations of our fellow students. There is an entire "real world" waiting for us that has pitifully low expectations of integrity for our business, political and social leaders. I see no compelling reason to apply these lower standards to ourselves. The honor system, and the single sanction, have been in place at the University for over 160 years and have served students well. The honor system can and should change with contemporary student attitudes, but I believe that removing the single sanction would be a dramatic change for the worse.

Thomas Hall is a 2002 College graduate and is currently a second-year Law student at the University. He served as chair of the Honor Committee from 2000-2002.