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WHISNANT: Reform is required

The same problems have plagued Honor for decades; reform is the solution

In 2003, The Cavalier Daily ran an Opinion piece in which writer Patrick Harvey argued, “Apathy is the biggest threat to the University’s honor system.” Citing statistics of only two percent of Honor offenses being reported, Harvey argued that absent major reforms, the system was doomed to fail its ideals. In another piece titled “Stopping Honor’s decline,” Harvey noted the need to regain the trust of professors to ensure the system’s continued viability. The following year, this paper published an article about Honor launching outreach efforts to “promote honor awareness,” including multiple roundtables, promotional materials, and a week dedicated to correcting misconceptions about the Honor system.

Fast forwarding to 2013, in a piece titled “Future of Honor hangs in the balance,” Joseph Liss detailed the Honor Committee’s plans for “promoting a dialogue” among students in an effort to “bridge the gap” between the community and the Committee. From one perspective, the Honor system has managed to survive and endure despite persistent institutional problems. Looking at it a different way, the continuity between the problems and Committee-proposed solutions of ten years ago illuminates a continuous malaise surrounding the system. Until Honor thinks more imaginatively about its systemic issues, the University is fated to hear the same messages and to see similar outreach efforts that never fully mend the Community of Trust.

On one hand, the Honor Committee’s efforts to crowd-source fixing Honor with events like the Honor Congress and “Everyone Is Honor” are laudable moves that illustrate the sincerity of Honor leadership. At the same time, continuous airing of grievances without major reform risks further alienating the University community. As concerns become more publicized, the perception of Honor as willing to take criticism but unable to implement solutions will be solidified. In a recent forum with the Minority Rights Coalition, Vice-Chair for Community Relations Martese Johnson stated that his goal was for minority students “to be angry” about “issues and disparities [in] their communities” in order to motivate them to initiate change. While students should certainly be more engaged with one of the most consequential institutions on Grounds, it is still ultimately up to the Honor Committee to signal to students and faculty not only unity in concern but also unity in action. University NAACP President VJ Jenkins argues, “Minority students can no longer victimize themselves and cry out that their interests are not served,” claiming instead, “It is the responsibility of both students and members of Honor to close the disparaging gap in disproportionate representation on the Honor Committee.”

Under the current leadership, there have been serious efforts to reform the composition of the organization through community member evaluations in interviews and greater diversity of support officers. Despite these positive steps, Honor Support Officer Katie Deal points out that the students Honor included in its interview process were nearly exclusively from L2K, a student-leadership network handpicked by the University. Citing success in reaching the broader student body through recent Lawn Chats, Deal suggests, “Using outside sources in our recruitment process is absolutely crucial, but it needs to be recalibrated to include those UVa students outside of the social circles tangential to Honor.”

It also appears the majority of Honor’s focus this year has been on creating programs or policies which extend off-Grounds, such as those to deal with Corner merchants and rent disputes. As a Managing Board editorial said last week, “The Committee’s focus should remain on the flaws within the University community, before it begins to look too far outside it.” Whatever the merits of the new policies, vociferous debate around these issues at the possible expense of others suggests a concerning impulse to expand a troubled system rather than first shore it up.

The point of this column is not to attack Honor or argue for the system’s abolition. As long as there is a University, there will be an Honor system with significant institutional power and impact on the lives of real people. Furthermore, this Honor leadership team appears as honestly committed, if not more so, to making the system better as any other in recent memory. That said, what Honor needs is radical thinking, not in the political sense but in the Latin meaning of the term — examining inherent or root causes of a problem. Hopefully, the upcoming Open Dialogue on the Single Sanction on November 5th can in fact be a stepping stone to more radical action. If we are to end the inertia that has been plaguing the system for decades, we need to look more honestly at a single sanction which around 80 percent of the student body either does not support or approves with reservations, as columnist John Connolly points out. If the single sanction is not in fact the root cause of Honor’s problems, it is up to the Committee to discover what is and make every effort to address it. Outreach efforts may help bridge some of the gap between Honor and the broader Community of Trust, but being aware of a problem is far from fixing it.

Gray Whisnant is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at g.whisnant@cavalierdaily.com.

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