Consensus clause trickery

WHILE the Honor Committee is brainstorming new ways to influence the outcome of jury trials, a separate group, Students for the Preservation of Honor, has proposed yet another "consensus clause," a ballot measure that would severely limit the ability of the student body to change the honor system during elections. Students should vote against this measure to protect the democratic process, and supporters of the single sanction should make arguments instead of trying to change the rules in their favor.

Last year, proponents of a similar consensus clause tried to convince us that their proposal wasn't about the single sanction -- they simply wanted to make sure that a minority of students couldn't alter the Honor Constitution. But this year, the true motivation behind the proposal is written right into the referendum: "This proposed change to the Honor Committee's Constitution would make it more difficult to change the single sanction."

Why do these students want to make it harder? The simple explanation is that they don't want the single sanction to change. Last year's proposal, which called for at least 50 percent of all students (not just voters) to voluntarily approve the measure in an election, reflects this goal: They tried to make the number high enough that it would never be reached in the conceivable future.

This year's proposal requires any changes to be proposed by at least 33 percent of the student body -- high enough to make change improbable, but low enough that uninformed students might be tricked into thinking it sounds reasonable when they click through referenda on the ballot. In reality, requiring one-third of the student body to vote in favor of any initiative is an unreasonable obstacle.

Thomas Hall, a member of Students for the Preservation of Honor, expressed concern in an interview that a "small minority of motivated students" might change the sanction. But if turnout remains consistent with last year's 53 percent undergraduate turnout, a small minority will not change the sanction because initiatives already require 60 percent approval from those who vote. For 10 percent of the student body to change the sanction, turnout would have to be a fraction of what it has been in recent years.

The students' Web site, savethesanction.com, complains that "A lot of the Honor Committee's time has been taken up with endless debates about the sanction, pushing other efforts to the back burner." In other words, they would rather end the pesky discussion so they can return to the business of expelling students from the University.

But the debate that sanction supporters find so inconvenient is vital to the health of the honor system at the University. For years, evidence has been mounting that the single sanction has been hurting the honor system. Faculty or Tas initiate most honor cases because students don't want to report their classmates when they know that the result could be expulsion. Guilty students are acquitted by juries who can only choose between expulsion and no penalty at all.

On top of the evidence that the single sanction allows cheating to go unpunished, some students might object to the sanction because they believe it's wrong to expel a student for the first offense. Those who are exposed and convicted have no opportunity for reconciliation; some students might want a system that allowed students to pay for their mistakes and return to the community.

It's perfectly legitimate to support the single sanction. Some people value tradition over reason and evidence, and that's fine. However, those who feel that way have no right to elevate their preference above the democratic process by significantly reducing the possibility that students will be able to change the system. One might wonder why the students who proposed the consensus clause don't spend their time and energy convincing the student body that the single sanction should remain in place. Instead of changing the rules in their favor, they could be campaigning to rally support for the sanction. If their arguments are truly persuasive, they shouldn't need to quash the debate.

The consensus clause ultimately represents a lack of trust in the student body. Student government has already been reduced to largely symbolic organizations that lack the money and the authority to enact meaningful change. But for the cult of the status quo, the limited opportunities for influence give students too much power. They don't trust that the majority of student voters will always agree with them for all of eternity, therefore students should be prevented from participating in the honor system. The "consensus clause" goes against the entire spirit of student government, and it's up to this year's voters to defeat this proposal before it's too late.

Cari Lynn Hennessy's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at chennessy@cavalierdaily.com.

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