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LANIUS AND DOWNES: Honor referenda aren’t about self-governance

The University should reject the proposed changes to the honor system

We write as third-year Law students, friends and colleagues who, while respectfully disagreeing on more or less every major question of politics and public policy, are unified in our opposition to this year’s referenda on the honor system. We strongly urge you to vote “no” on all three measures.

Make no mistake: this election is fundamentally about ending the single sanction. Passing referenda two and three will compel the Honor Committee to offer an amendment next year changing honor to a multiple sanction system. Our friend Richard Yoder has written about the moral underpinnings of our current honor system. We agree with Yoder and strongly support the single sanction. It is expressive of a fundamental, ethical commitment to the kind of community we want at this University. Its rigor is at once aspirational and a badge of distinction.

The Campaign for Self-Governance, the campaign behind the referenda, argues “the issue at hand has nothing to do with the difference between the single- and the multi-sanction system.” Rather, the campaign is about “students defining for themselves the kind of community that this place ought to be.” On this account, the proposals are solely about the ideal of student self-governance. They complain the Honor Committee is unresponsive to student input and that the current generation of students has never spoken on the single sanction question.

Glittering generalities and subterfuge aside, the campaign is mistaken on its own terms. Student input on the honor code has long been vocal, persistent and effective. In 2013, the Honor Committee proposed an amendment which would have implemented both informed retraction, a kind of plea bargain for honor trials, and the replacement of random honor juries with juries composed solely of members of the Honor Committee. In principle, the amendment offered something for both those who supported the single sanction and those who favored a more flexible regime. One of our peers at the law school, Frank Bellamy, introduced a ballot initiative providing for informed retraction alone. The student body roundly rejected the Committee’s amendment and approved Bellamy’s.

This episode demonstrates a few things. First, student self-governance over honor is alive and well. It seems every few years we are asked as students to consider important questions of honor’s place in our community of trust. As third years, we will have voted on such student-led initiatives in two of our three years at the University. No popular assembly, the dictate of the first referendum, was necessary to present these choices to us. Ironically, the very fact the campaign was able to place their referenda on this year’s ballot demonstrates that the current system is not unresponsive to the concerns of students as is claimed. In this regard, it is worth further observing that as recently as 2009 the student body considered and rejected a proposal to move to a multi-sanction system by an overwhelming margin. It likewise rejected the idea in non-binding form in 2007.

Second, the 2013 referendum also demonstrates student self-governance is not about delegating the hard work of shaping our communities to an elite body of experts. In that election, the community rejected the carefully crafted political compromise that appealed to all parties inside the Honor Committee. It instead endorsed Bellamy’s grassroots proposal. The campaign’s ballot initiatives would funnel future changes to honor through a process centered on the Committee — hardly the democratic ideal at work.

The campaign does not provide the specifics of a future multiple-sanction system in its proposal. Referenda numbers two and three would assign that challenge to the Honor Committee, which would propose a constitutional amendment on the question next year and inevitably shape its language in line with the Committee’s own peculiar institutional interests. Incidentally, both of the organizers of the campaign are running for the Honor Committee this year.

This leads to a larger point. The overall effect of the campaign’s referenda would be to fabricate a mandate for abolition of the single sanction in advance, without having a concrete policy on the table. That would wait until next year, when the proposal would come with both the imprimatur of the Honor Committee and the weight of this year’s referendum behind it. This will preempt a full and open dialogue, precisely the opposite of the ostensible object of the campaign.

If student self-governance is to be our watchword, we deserve better. We deserve a real debate in the public square over the future of the honor system. We deserve clarity and precision about the issues before us, not empty bromides or platitudes. And we deserve a process centered on the community of trust, not on the Honor Committee under the guise of student self-governance.

We therefore strongly urge a “no” vote on all three of the proposed referenda.

W. Andrew Lanius and Colin M. Downes are third-year students at the University of Virginia School of Law.