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Inside the Honor Committee's deliberations on constitutional change

The Committee has struggled with reaching quorum, internal conflict and deliberations

<p>One consistent pattern during Committee meetings last fall was a lack of attendance among representatives — the number of members present for any given meeting typically ranged from between 19 and 23 individuals out of 28 members total.</p>

One consistent pattern during Committee meetings last fall was a lack of attendance among representatives — the number of members present for any given meeting typically ranged from between 19 and 23 individuals out of 28 members total.

Every student matriculated to the University since 1842 has pledged to abide by a promise — not to lie, cheat or steal. 

Almost 180 years later, this pledge remains the same. The first permanent Honor Committee was adopted in 1912 — before then, there were no formal accusatory procedures. The committee operated without a written constitution until 1977, when students facing trial were guaranteed certain recorded rights. The student body also gained the right to change the constitution by popular referendum.

In the decades that followed, there have been many proposed constitutional reforms, often initiated by student qualms. A majority of students voted to uphold the Honor Committee's single-sanction system in nearly a dozen referenda proposed since the 1970s, and debate over expulsion and single sanction has continued in today’s committee. Under the single-sanction system, students who are found guilty of an Honor offense face only one penalty — expulsion. The University Judiciary System, by contrast, employs a multi-sanction system with sanctions ranging from a written warning to suspension and expulsion.

Last March, the Committee released a Statistical Transparency Reporting Portal with data on Honor reports and cases over the past eight semesters. These statistics showed a disparity in cases brought against international students and Asian Americans — Asian American students comprised 27.2 percent of all reports despite making up about 12 percent of the student population in the same period. 

The Committee’s Bicentennial Report showed similar inconsistencies between reported student demographics and University demographics — Black students are over-represented by 2.7 percentage points, at 8.7 percent of reported students and 6 percent of University students. Students have recently expressed discontent with the way the system operates, citing these disparities and lack of transparency. 

Over the past several months, members of the Honor Committee have proposed, debated and refined various proposals to put forth to the student body during elections this spring aimed at fostering an Honor system everyone engages with and buys into. 

The committee ultimately narrowed five different proposals down to one, written by third-year Law student Rep. Christopher Benos. In its final iteration, Benos’s proposal calls for amendments to three articles of Honor’s Constitution. If on the ballot, students will vote for two changes independent of one another. 

The first is an amendment to Article II and would change the sanction for committing an Honor violation from expulsion to two full semesters of leave instead. The second change would extend the period an accused student can file an Informed Retraction until the start of a trial — currently, students can only submit an IR within the seven-day period after an accusation. 

Internal Honor elections

Serious discussion about the prospect of significantly reforming Honor’s constitution first began during internal elections last spring, when Chambers ran against one other candidate, who was also a third-year College student at the time, for chair of the Honor Committee. 

The Honor Committee is composed of 27 elected Honor representatives — two from each of the 10 schools except the College of Arts and Sciences, which has five. Representatives are elected during University-wide elections, and the committee then elects five members to its executive committee in internal elections. These five roles include the chair, vice-chair for hearings, vice-chair for investigations, vice-chair for education and vice-chair for community relations. 

Ahead of elections, Chambers and several other individuals set up an informal ticket by sending out an email outlining their policy plans and goals for the year. Individuals on the ticket included Jack Stone, vice-chair for community relations and fourth-year Commerce student, Gabrielle Bray, vice-chair for hearings and third-year College student and Maggie Regnery, vice-chair for investigations and fourth-year Commerce student.

Ryan Keane, Class of 2021 alumnus and former chair of the Honor Committee, said the ticket was distributed the morning of internal elections, adding that in his past experience as a support officer and senior support officer, he had never seen candidates for the executive committee put forth a ticket. 

“I don't think anyone has ever done that, as far as I know, in recent years,” Keane said.

Medical student Madhav Nair, who joined Honor his first year and served as the vice-chair of education during Keane’s term last year, agreed that he could not recall candidates running on a ticket prior to Chambers’ election. 

“I think that's because you want each candidate to be elected individually by their merit and their character, not because they're a whole unit,” Nair said. 

The Cavalier Daily obtained a copy of the platform, which outlines Chambers’ previous experience within Honor and plans for the upcoming year, including the sentiment that Honor’s current governing documents were a “butchered version of the constitution put forth in the 1970s” and that the committee should create a new constitution. 

“The policy that will reach the final product will come from the Committee, not me,” the platform reads. “I will ardently argue for certain issues, but the power rests with the 29 members of this body.”

Keane also brought up concerns other members of the committee had with the way elections were conducted, specifically allegations of unfairness during debate for the chair position. 

“It’s really unfortunate that the deliberations are so confidential,” Keane said. “I heard a lot of complaints from people and really just people were in shock.” 

Nair noted a similar sense of discontent around election proceedings. 

“I did get a sense that there were more than several people who were not happy with how the questioning went down,” Nair said. “It started with a female candidate, and then [questioning] kind of veered off into a more negative path for both candidates.” 

Honor’s internal elections are held in closed session, historically during a weekend retreat. During the pandemic, the committee moved to Zoom elections, still held in closed sessions. Other organizations typically allow more community engagement in elections for executive positions — like Student Council and UJC, which hold public discussions and release exact vote counts.

“If people knew what went on, they would lose a lot of respect and a lot of trust in the Honor system,” Keane said. “We had committee members who dropped out of Honor completely to remove themselves from the committee.”

Keane said two members left the committee after Chambers was elected, citing the election procedures. Chambers confirmed this number, but noted that one of the individuals was ineligible to hold the seat they were elected to as they were not a member of that school. 

Today, Nair thinks the committee has lost touch with the progress students want to see from the Honor system.

“I don't think [Honor] is a bad or good organization,” Nair said. “There’s just different types of people that are in it that can give it a better or worse representation, and I think the problem right now is that there might be an invasion of people who maybe don't have Honor’s best interests and the students’ best interests in mind.”

Ultimately, Chambers was elected chair of the Honor Committee. In an interview with The Cavalier Daily in April, Chambers said his biggest goal was to set up referenda that could be voted on during student body elections this year — specifically, Chambers expressed interest in transitioning Honor from a single-sanction system to a multi-sanction system. 

“When I campaigned on that sort of idea, it seemed to resonate with the Committee, so I’m hopeful that we can get that done this year,” Chambers said.

What the Committee found, however, was that driving substantial change was easier said than done. 

Honor Committee debates constitutional reform

The Committee began to discuss constitutional changes in a meeting Sept. 12, when Chambers told The Cavalier Daily he wanted to avoid “sitting idle” and give “the student body something better than the system we have today.”

To start, Committee members brought five different proposals to the table. 

Chambers introduced two proposals himself, the first of which would have eliminated single sanction, the Informed Retraction and the ability for a student to have their trial decided by a random panel of students. Under this system, students would plead either “guilty” or “not guilty” after being notified of an Honor report made against them. Despite the elimination of single sanction, this system would still allow for expulsion — a student found guilty of an Honor violation under a “not guilty” plea would be expelled, while a student who plead “guilty” and was found guilty would take a two-semester leave of absence. 

Chambers’ second proposal would also eliminate single sanction, the IR and the random panel. Students would also submit their plea after notification of the Honor report against them. In this second proposal, a panel of Committee members would meet to determine the sanction for a student found guilty of an Honor violation — a student who pled “guilty” and was found guilty could be expelled or take a two-semester leave of absence. As in Chambers’ original plan, a student who pled “not guilty” and was found guilty would be expelled. 

A third proposal written by Bray, Caitlin Kreinheder, vice chair for education and fourth-year Architecture student and Rep. Catherine Denton, third-year Nursing student, would have created a multi-sanction system. 

“Having a sanction that does not involve leaving the community, but still includes an academic impact attracts members of the community who have been put off by the idea of a single sanction of expulsion for too long,” the proposal read. “With this proposal we are able to introduce the flexibility and equity needed to bring in more buy-in from the community as well as still hold our student body accountable.​​”

The fourth proposal, written by Graduate student Achintya TCA, would also implement a multi-sanction system by changing the bylaws of the Committee’s constitution, and allow future committees to change sanctions “as they see fit.” 

The final proposal was Benos’s, which would reduce the single sanction from expulsion to a two-semester leave of absence, and either eliminate the IR or reduce the penalty to a one-semester leave of absence. 

During the committee’s Sept. 19 meeting, members voted to move forward with Benos’s plan to eliminate expulsion. During subsequent meetings, the Committee would focus on ironing out the details of Benos’s proposal. 

Eighteen out of 22 members present voted Oct. 3 to maintain the IR as a two-semester leave of absence rather than shortening it. During the same meeting, Chambers proposed eliminating the ability for an accused student to be tried by a random panel of students. However, the committee voted to keep all three options ­­— a random panel of students, a mixed panel of random students and Honor members and solely Honor Committee members – with 17 members voting for and 3 members voting against.

With the details of Benos’s proposal resolved, the Committee voted Oct. 24 on whether or not to include the proposal on a student body-wide ballot this spring. The proposal did not pass, as only 14 members voted in favor out of 19 in attendance. In order for a constitutional amendment to pass, the two-thirds of the Honor Committee — or 19 individuals — must be present and vote in favor of the change.

Of the five representatives who voted against, three were members of the executive board — Stone, Bray and Regnery. Chambers abstained from voting. While it is within his power as chair to vote, he said that as chair of deliberations under Roberts Rules of Order, he opts to remain impartial as much as possible.

Stone said he thought voting in favor of Benos’s proposal would undermine the community of trust. 

“This amendment failed to address eliminating all-student panels, and I don't trust student panels to find guilty verdicts regardless of the sanction,” Stone said in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily at the time.

Regnery said her decision to vote against the proposal was driven by her belief that the Honor Committee should not lower its high standard. 

“I believe that we, as a committee, should be focusing more on ways to educate and instill the values of integrity within the student body,” Regnery said in an email statement to the Cavalier Daily at the time.

Benos said he felt as though members of the executive board were failing to honor their election promises by voting against the proposal. 

“The central commitment that our executive leadership made to us when we elected them, and why we elected them, was that they would support a reform that was significant,” Benos said. “Throughout that process, they also emphasized that even if it wasn't 100 percent what they wanted, if the will of the majority of the committee was to move in a certain direction, they were willing to support that. They have not upheld that promise.”

The Honor Committee has until the University Board of Elections’ Feb. 5 deadline to produce and pass referenda that will then be put forward to a student body-wide vote this spring. To do that, however, the Committee will have to ensure representatives attend meetings to discuss and vote on proposals in-person — something the organization struggled with last fall.

Voting access for those not physically present

One consistent pattern during Committee meetings last fall was a lack of attendance among representatives. The number of members present for any given meeting typically ranged from between 19 and 23 individuals out of 28 members total. At the committee’s final meeting of the semester Dec. 10, just 14 members attended — meaning the group was only able to get through half of its agenda. 

“It looks like the rest of this needs a quorum,” Chambers said. “We got through about half the agenda, so that’s good.” 

This has been due to a variety of reasons — as committee members represent the University’s wide range of undergraduate and graduate schools, not every member is physically present on Grounds each week or able to make it to Newcomb Hall at 7 p.m. Still, however, Chambers noted that there have been some who chose to skip meetings.

“I tried my hand at compelling people to come more forcefully earlier in the semester, when I reached out to members who held especially competitive seats and said ‘if you're not going to come, you should probably resign,’” Chambers said. “Realistically, I don't have the hours in the day to recall elections because everyone doesn't show up.”

Both Chambers and Benos noted that attendance was likely affected by the Committee's last several weeks of discussion surrounding referenda, but cited different reasons — Benos said individuals became “disillusioned” because “votes no longer represented the will of the Committee,” while Chambers said more experienced Committee members began to feel “steamrolled” because their “views [were] not being taken in at all.”

A few members who were not present in Charlottesville for the meetings were able to cast non-binding votes over Zoom while the Committee was working to flesh out the details of the referenda. However, these members were not permitted to vote virtually in the Committee's final vote to put the proposal on the ballot in the spring. 

In early November, Benos said a “significant number” of members on the Honor Committee sent a letter to leadership requesting that they provide a virtual option for meetings and voting. 

“Leadership made it clear that, even in a pandemic, other widely-accepted and viable alternatives, like remote voting, proxy voting and additional meeting times, were unacceptable,” Benos said. “Recognizing what amounted to obstruction, many of us felt that the only way to codify the will of the Committee was to put that support in writing.”

While proxy voting is not permitted per Robert’s Rules, Student Council — another organization that uses Robert’s Rules of Order to conduct its legislative session — permits any members of its representative body to attend meetings and vote on legislation virtually, even though meetings are held in-person. Student Council’s bylaws permit a representative to use a proxy, which counts towards quorum — while their vote is included in the calculation of total votes, the vote must always be recorded as “abstain.”

Honor’s Executive Committee did not respond to the members’ letter.

“I never responded on paper because I didn't see the point negotiating with it,” Chambers said. “It seemed like a kind of rage … and it’s not really useful to debate with anger.” 

Chambers added that he has been working with another committee representative on a bylaw that if passed, would allow the committee to meet virtually. 

“Bylaws take time, especially one that materially changes how the committee functions,” Chambers said.

Keane added that during his experience as chair, Honor meetings saw increased attendance when meetings moved to a virtual setting after the onset of the pandemic. The Committee was able to do this without passing a bylaw because the University and the state of Virginia declared a state of emergency. 

Both Keane and Chambers identified various downsides to virtual meetings, such as a lack of transparency and engagement.

“Our mission is to not [turn] Honor into a virtual body that's unanswerable to the public,” Chambers said.

Alumni pressure

Another factor weighing on the minds of Committee members has been the opinions of alumni, who often cite Honor as an institution that had a large impact on their time at the University. 

“Whenever I speak with alums, on almost every occasion without fail, they will fault to the Honor system as one of the most important aspects of not only of their time at U.Va., that it's shaped their life beyond U.Va.,” University President Jim Ryan said in a podcast interview with Chambers last month.

Benos and Chambers presented the proposal to the Alumni Board of Managers more than two months ago. Benos said the pair received a “very positive reception” to both the proposal and the idea that the Committee could democratically organize reform to put on the ballot.

“While there are always some alumni who are attached to what they believe to be the best form of sanctioning, there are actually a fair number that I've spoken with who are in favor of the idea of bringing a rehabilitative aspect to the Honor system,” Benos said. “I've received emails from organizations willing to publicly endorse that position once it gets on the ballot.”

Benos added that regardless of what alumni think, it is the job of Honor Committee representatives to work for current students, and to represent them to the best of their ability. 

Chambers said as chair, he has heard both positive and negative from alumni in regards to the proposal.

“To be honest, I don't think I've spoken to a representative bunch of alumni so far that when I talk to alumni, they're generally the ones who are reaching out to me because the referendum angers them and they have qualms with it, which is perfectly acceptable,” Chambers said.

The Board of Visitors also spoke at length about the Honor System during its full board meeting Dec. 12, when Rector Whittington Clements noted that he met with Chambers about bolstering discussion and support for the system as a whole, as well as the issues the committee has had with passing referenda. 

Sarita Mehta, student member of the Board and fourth-year College student, identified a disconnect between students and the Honor system. Many students don’t recognize “the gravity or depth” of the system, Mehta said. 

“On ballots, it's hard to pass referendum and that's a deeper problem with the Honor system and a lot of the organizations at U.Va. set against the backdrop that a lot of students in our generation are just questioning institutions broadly and there’s not a lot of buy-in,” Mehta said. 

Looking forward 

Benos hopes his proposal will be on the student-wide ballot come spring, even if he’s unable to pass it in the Committee — a binding constitutional amendment can be put to the student body if it receives no less than 1,250 signatures, per the University Board of Elections’ requirements

If passed by the student body, Benos’s proposal would be the largest change to the Honor Committee’s constitution since its founding. 

As the Committee prepares referenda to be put to a vote by the student body this spring, strengthening relationships with other organizations that are critical to the University’s tradition of student self-governance is key to ensuring “buy-in” to any proposal members land on. However, these internal debates over referenda have strained these relationships with other student organizations on Grounds this fall — namely, Student Council and UBE.

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