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STRIKE: Dismantle the Honor Committee

The Honor Committee no longer serves a purpose in the University community — radical change to the way we handle academic dishonesty is desperately needed

To put it plainly — eliminating the Honor Committee would promote equity in our community.
To put it plainly — eliminating the Honor Committee would promote equity in our community.

In its Spring 2021 Newsletter, the Honor Committee reported that in the last 18 months it had received 99 total reports, 21 Conscientious Retractions and 48 Informed Retractions. Three  students had been found guilty during hearings and were therefore permanently dismissed from the University. These statistics are abhorrent. At a time when our community faces unprecedented national crises, the Committee has continued to function without any consideration for broader contexts nor for the mental health and wellness of students. Combined with historical statistics on the Committee’s pervasive racial bias and socioeconomic inequity, this profound lack of consideration for the contemporary period demonstrates the inability of the Honor Committee to effectively serve our community. 

The Honor Committee’s Bicentennial Report demonstrates the Committee’s pervasive and continued racial bias. From 2012-2017, white students comprised 58 percent of the student body but only 30 percent of Honor reports. Asian and Asian-American students comprised 12 percent of the student body yet 27 percent of reports, and international students comprised 10 percent of the student body yet 28 percent of reports. Between 1987 and 2000, one-third of the students dismissed by Honor were Black, despite Black students only comprising 10 percent of the student body. These statistics illustrate, as others have argued, the implicit bias of the broader University community. Students of color are no more likely to cheat than white students yet are reported in higher numbers, likely as a result of implicit bias in faculty and staff. The students overseeing Honor cases and hearings are similarly biased, resulting in students of color facing more frequent and severe sanctions than white students. 

Race is not the only factor which disproportionately affects certain groups of students — a student’s economic class and immigration status are both implicated. While most students who face Honor sanctions have the ability to transfer to a peer institution, international students lose their F-1 visa and are forced to leave the country. Likewise, low-income students lose access to their federal financial aid. The system disproportionately harms the most vulnerable students in our community.

The Committee will defend itself — arguing that reform is the way forward, and that students can gradually improve the Committee rather than totally eliminating it. They will point to the creation of the Informed Retraction in 2013, which allows students a one-year suspension rather than full expulsion, as an example. They will point to the Investigative Panel, which can decide to drop minor Honor reports rather than subjecting the student to the full investigative force of the Committee. The fact of the matter is, though, that we have heard these reformist arguments time and time again — yet nothing has changed. Dozens of students are still subjected to the trauma of potential suspension or expulsion for missteps as small as forgetting citations on a paper, as was the case with the third trial listed in the Spring 2021 Newsletter. Despite continued attempts to implement a multi-sanction system, nothing has come to fruition. 

The “community of trust” is fundamentally the wrong paradigm for responding to dishonesty at the University. Rather than students and faculty treating one another with automatic suspicion and thus fostering a toxic environment of surveillance, we must instead promote mutual support and solidarity for the various physiological struggles we all face that cause dishonesty in the first place. In the last 18 months, our community has experienced an unprecedented public health crisis and subsequent long-term social isolation, widespread social unrest resulting from the continued police violence against people of color, an extremely high-stakes and divisive presidential election and literal insurrection against American democracy. While the Committee offers accused students the ability to seek a Contributory Health Impairment hearing to consider if a “medical or mental condition” contributed to the alleged offense, this is insufficient.

All the while, the Honor Committee has sat idle, permanently dismissing students from the University for failing to properly cite their sources in a paper. The system we students have created and maintained has responded to an unprecedented sequence of crises with the continued interrogation and trial of our peers as if all is normal. It has responded to our contemporary period by forcing 48 students into a one-year suspension and expelling three. It is disturbing to me that such monumental challenges to student health and well-being have been near-completely disregarded — that the Honor Committee has operated under a business-as-usual mindset. A system which harms our peers for no good reason other than upholding some abstract, arbitrary concept of “honor” should not and cannot be tolerated. 

At the dawn of the pandemic, I wrote in defense of the Honor Committee employing expulsion as a — but not necessarily the only — sanction for dishonesty. This was wrong. A year later, I now call for its complete dismantling, as have community organizations like U.Va. Beyond Policing. The Honor Committee is a self-imposed police force and a wildly unnecessary interrogative and punitive response to what is in actuality a crisis of mental health and student wellness. We must not meet this challenge with suspension and expulsion — both of which cause untold trauma on our peers — but with mutual respect, understanding and support. Students do not lie, cheat or steal out of innate malice — they do so because of some external context or circumstance which has not been adequately addressed. Addressing these root causes is key to both improving the lives of students and preventing dishonesty in the first place. 

Dismantling the Honor Committee does not mean eliminating the Honor Code itself — students would still be expected to practice academic integrity on assignments and exams. Dismantling the Honor Committee means we eliminate the constant state of surveillance and automatic distrust between faculty and students. It means we stop punishing dishonesty with suspension and expulsion. It means instead of responding in a way which acknowledges that the source of dishonesty is not innate malice but rather the ongoing epidemic of stress, anxiety and other mental health issues among college students. To put it plainly — eliminating the Honor Committee would promote equity in our community. 

Noah Strike is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com.

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.

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