The Cavalier Daily
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Self-disenfranchisement

REFERENDUM Number 3 -- the so-called "consensus clause" -- is the single most dangerous threat to student self-governance to appear on a student ballot. Indeed, it marks the first time that students have seriously proposed abdicating the power of their own vote -- and that of all future University students -- and forfeiting it to the Board of Visitors and the elites that influence its administration.

Requiring an absolute majority of the student body to amend its governing principles (which the consensus clause does for proposals related to the sanctioning power of the Honor Committee) means handicapping active and educated student body members from changing their student government as the times change. Worse, as a practical matter, the consensus clause will completely insulate the single sanction from popular student opinion. In fact, if the referendum passes, the University student body will likely never muster the requisite absolute majority of votes to reform the system.

The reason lies in the numbers. During recent referenda, barely 25 percent of the total student body have showed up at the polls; fewer still voted in favor of one. A large reason for these low numbers is explained by the enrollment numbers of the University's graduate and professional schools and the growing enrollment of its continuing education programs. These programs will serve as inherent brakes to meeting any proposed 50 percent requirement relating to the single sanction. More than one of three University students is enrolled in such a program, but the vast majority of such potential voters simply do not closely monitor or vote on issues pertaining to honor. It's just not as relevant to their lives.

But the fact that many University constituents don't actively partake in student politics is no reason to cut off issues from student debate. Like local, state and national elections and referenda throughout history, student referenda are not won with absolute majorities of the total electorate. And this is a good thing: Such contests are won among voters who care, who are educated on the issues, who are civically involved and who actually show up at the polls. Rather than being a fringe special interest group, these voters are the greater public's guardian angels.

There are policymakers at this school who believe that the general student body can't be trusted with the honor system. And should the consensus clause pass, students will not merely have tied their hands to the mast -- they also will have handed over the rudder.

Different times very likely will call for a different honor system. Perhaps the courts' interpretations of due process or equal protection rights will change, forcing modifications to an educational penalty with very strident and disparate results. Perhaps the opinions of future college applicants, faculty or Virginia voters will change, forcing practical or political pressures on the system. These concerns will need to be addressed, but students will now be helpless to address them.

Instead, should the referendum pass and the sanction merit modification, students will have to forever rely on the good grace and good governing of the Board of Visitors. It is the Board that long ago entrusted to students the privilege of governing themselves. Ironically, in an attempt to protect one student institution, some students are willing to forfeit another: actual and effective student self-governance.

Why are some students willing to make such a Faustian deal? Students have passionately and honestly debated the righteousness of the single sanction for decades. They should continue for decades more. But some students have stumbled upon an electoral loophole to permanently insulate the single sanction from democratic processes. The system is better, they have decided, in the hands of the Board and the interest groups that influence the Board. The Board, which the consensus clause would, in effect, entrust with Honor's sanctioning power, rarely meets in Charlottesville and has little contact with students. But it does not operate in a vacuum; it responds to the counsel of top administrators, alumni and donors. The appointed student member of the Board and Honor chair also have regular face time. Some particularly engaged board members have maintained relations with undergraduate members of fraternities or secret societies, and others regularly read The Cavalier Daily. Despite their best efforts, however, these individual voices are no substitute for the chorus of the greater student body politic as amplified by unrestrained elections and referenda.

The honor system is prized by the students of the University precisely because it is governed by the students. Any proposal that so seeks to divorce students from an institution they need and love does no service to it, and certainly not to the self-governing students of the University.

John A. Clark is a second year in the Law School. He is a former editor-in-chief of The Cavalier Daily.

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