As the Spring 2017 elections approach, it seems that we have yet another Honor referendum to consider. Vj Jenkins and Nathan Gonzalez are spearheading the “Empowered 55” movement to pass the “Democratization Amendment to Honor’s Constitution.” Their efforts represent what is best about student self-governance here at the University, pushing changes they believe are important by gathering signatures, making their case and mobilizing support. Unfortunately, the proposal they bring before the student body is misguided as it stands and would be detrimental to the careful maintenance of the community of trust if implemented.
The democratization amendment, lowering the threshold for change to the Honor constitution from 60 percent to 55 percent, is an attempted proxy for a vote on the consideration of a multi-sanction system. It cannot stand on its own merits. The Honor Constitution should not have its permanent requirements for change diluted in the pursuit of a specific agenda.
Jenkins and Gonzalez assert that the principle of student self-governance “dictates that we pass a referendum to reduce the barrier to change in Honor’s constitution,” building off a previous point that “students begin to lack faith that change is possible” when their voices are ignored. This was ostensibly the case last year when the referendum option to consider a multi-sanction system barely failed to clear the 60 percent threshold.
It is true that Honor works best when it is responsive to the needs of the community it serves and inclusive of the broadest possible spectrum of life experiences. This is an integral part of what it means to foster a community of trust.
It is not true that student self-governance is achieved solely, if at all, through a system of direct democracy, and that the principle of student self-governance “dictates” anything of the sort. Representative democracy, which is how Honor Committee members are selected, is an equally legitimate form of student self-governance. Changes to the status quo of a fundamental institution like Honor should require an overwhelming level of popular support to enact. We should not be lowering the bar for constitutional changes at a time when institutions on all levels are being beset by a wave of popular disruption, a lot of it more destructive than constructive. The Honor Committee’s recent opinion piece details why the comparison of the 55 percent threshold proposed for amending the Honor constitution to the simple majority requirement for amending state constitutions is misleading.
Much of the authors’ argument, however, has much more to do with the creation of a multi-sanction Honor system than the right conditions for a democracy of students, betraying that their effort is a relitigation of last spring’s vote. They argue that an “entrenched Honor system” represents “the worst of elitism, racially disparate expulsions, and traditionalism.” The single sanction may disproportionately affect minority students. Honor may be too homogenous and cliquey an organization. But this amendment is not the appropriate channel through which to vent that frustration or implement a change in policies. A vote for the democratization amendment should not be considered a vote for a multi-sanction system, and the reverse is true. A multi-sanction system can still be implemented under existing conditions if enough support is mobilized. It does not require changing the rules.
I believe we need to pause, take a deep breath, and give our institutions a chance to work. A constant focus on Honor’s failures is unfair to the many successes that the organization has had. With the Informed Retraction, from 2013 to 2015, the average length of a case was 113 days, a markedly deliberate process. The average number of cases reported in a year was 42, a significant increase from the past, and only 6.67 percent of cases were found guilty at a hearing after the IR, down from 23.81 percent before. Those with non-traditional educations and those accused of multiple offenses need to be better incorporated into the existing system, but we need to allow our representatives and the Honor support officer pool, the equivalent of a civil service, to work these problems out.
In this effort, both the Honor Audit Commission, tasked with a two-year mandate of study, and the IR Working Group are developing recommendations for how we proceed as a community. We need to be mindful of the fact that the Committee has been buffeted by waves of disruption that have placed enormous strain on its limited volunteer capacities, forced into constant reaction instead of deliberation and proactivity. Despite this, Honor has proven its good faith in striving to be the inclusive, diverse and representative organization we all want it to be through its outreach, education and recruitment efforts. It is actively working against the challenge of “spotlighting,” and Honor support officers are trained extensively on respecting cultural sensitivities. Our institutions are working. They need adjustments and engagement, not disruption and attacks.
Olivier Weiss is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org