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Honor constitutional debates over referenda threatened to derail donation to U.Va. Mutual Aid

The committee feared that a donation would look unethical should Student Council make a statement on Honor’s contentious constitutional changes

<p>Honor’s donation of just over $2,000 to U.Va. Mutual Aid was finalized last week.&nbsp;</p>

Honor’s donation of just over $2,000 to U.Va. Mutual Aid was finalized last week. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, U.Va. Mutual Aid has distributed over $105,000 in funding from students, community members and organizations to students. Now struggling to maintain this momentum, U.Va. Mutual Aid is looking to peer organizations for recurring donations to build a sustainable donor base from. 

The Honor Committee was the first organization U.Va. Mutual Aid reached out to about this initiative. Soon, however, Honor’s concern over the possibility of Student Council weighing in on debates over referenda this fall put the group’s donation at risk.

U.Va. Mutual Aid is a part of Student Council’s Support and Access Services branch and was co-founded by Abel Liu, president of Student Council and fourth-year College student, at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. Today, the initiative is directed by fourth-year College student Sarandon Elliott.

“The reason why Mutual Aid is important is because it's a group of students and community members who want to better material conditions at the University for the working class,” Elliott said. “It's not about charity, it’s not about padding a resume, it’s not about feeling good about yourself — but at the end of the day, it's about helping other people in the community that are similar to us, that have the same struggles and [are] struggling for equity at the University.”

The program offers financial assistance to students through grants without stipulations. This semester, both Elliott and Liu have been working to establish a recurring donor base — Honor was the first group the pair reached out to about joining. 

Honor funds are directly managed by the chair of the Honor Committee — currently fourth-year College student Andy Chambers — who said the organization has previously donated to U.Va. Mutual Aid under previous committees. Liu confirmed this, adding that the Honor Committee donated just over $2,000 almost two years ago, in March 2020.

“For larger funding decisions, it is best practice to defer to larger bodies such as the executive committee or committee, but there is nothing requiring the chair to do so,” Chambers said. “I defer many funding decisions to the vice chairs for their respective responsibilities, but it is the chair with discretion over the funds so long as spending is both legal and in the pursuit of good health of the Honor System.”

In early October, Elliott met with Liu, Chambers and Jack Stone, vice-chair for community relations and fourth-year Commerce student, to discuss the prospect of Honor joining U.Va. Mutual Aid as a flagship recurring donor. 

A few weeks later, however, Stone called Elliott and said Honor would be unable to do so until any Honor referenda had either passed or “blown over.” The committee has been discussing serious constitutional overhaul since early September, and have been working to flesh out the details of one proposal written by Rep. Christopher Benos, third-year Law student, since late October. 

Elliott said Stone explained it “might look odd” if Honor were to donate to U.Va. Mutual Aid and Student Council weighed in on any referenda or single sanction. In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Chambers said he made this decision because he wanted to avoid the donation looking like a quid-pro-quo, adding he made it clear to Liu that he was trying to be “as ethical as possible and very clear.”

“It's a great program and so we think that it's honorable to take care of those that are in need,” Chambers said. “Honor likes Mutual Aid, but we have no vested interest in it being funded or not — that's not our program.”

In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Elliott said she found the exchange “really disappointing.”

“It really breaks my heart that because of this weird political thing going on, students are really going to be affected materially,” Elliott said regarding the decision.

Per a Dec. 6 text exchange between Elliott and Stone obtained by The Cavalier Daily, the two groups later came to a mutual understanding — so long as Student Council did not comment on any referenda discussed by the Honor Committee, Honor would donate to U.Va. Mutual Aid.

“I was confused as to what Andy told me and looks like I can give you the money so long as StudCo does not endorse anything coming out of the Honor Committee this year,” Stone wrote in the text message to Elliott. “Double check with Abel but I’m pretty sure that’s the deal!”

In an email statement to The Cavalier Daily regarding these messages, Stone said these messages were the result of a “miscommunication” between him and Chambers. He denied that Honor is withholding funding to U.Va. Mutual Aid on the condition that Student Council does or does not endorse any plan concerning Honor — rather, Stone claimed Honor is requesting the neutrality of any body in communication with, making decisions for or otherwise claiming the group’s work.

“In the interest of keeping Honor funding independent of contentious Honor Committee politics, we are stipulating that any bodies receiving Honor’s financial support should be neutral on resolutions not officially endorsed by the Committee,” Stone said.

In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Liu confirmed that Student Council’s Executive Board did not speak on pending referenda proposals so as to not disrupt funding to U.Va. Mutual Aid. Liu noted that he does not have control over what resolutions the representative body chooses to propose, however. 

“It remains true that Student Council’s Executive Board does not plan to weigh in on single sanction so that we can ensure Honor’s donation to Mutual Aid, which is our top priority,” Liu said. “Students suffer when our recurring donation agreements fall through, so our top priority is to ensure the strength of Mutual Aid and wealth redistribution from extremely wealthy organizations like Honor to low-income students at U.Va.”

Benos does not propose to eradicate the Honor Committee’s single sanction system, which has been in place since 1825. Rather — if proposed and passed by students this spring — it would reduce the sole penalty for committing an Honor violation from expulsion to a two-semester leave of absence.

Honor’s donation to U.Va. Mutual Aid was finalized this week. Given the interaction surrounding the donation, Elliott said that moving forward, she plans to approach organizations across Grounds that are more in line with U.Va. Mutual Aid’s values. 

“Mutual Aid isn't a charity — it's about solidarity,” Elliott said. “I don't want people to see this as a one way street, right? It’s a mutual relationship — helping our peers and workers and the community. So we want people that are kind of going to share the same ideas and values.”

This story is the second installment in a three-part series examining the Honor Committee’s efforts at reforming its constitution since April. The first installment can be accessed here and the final installment can be found here.

Ava MacBlane contributed reporting to this story.