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With expulsion on the ballot, students and faculty consider Honor system

The proposed change will appear on student-body wide ballot this March

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For the first time since 2016, students will have the opportunity to fundamentally change the honor system this spring. If passed, a referendum — authored by Honor Rep. Christopher Benos, third-year Law student — will significantly alter the Honor Committee’s constitution by reducing the current single sanction of expulsion to a two-semester leave of absence. 

During the fall, the Committee debated and ultimately failed to internally pass five proposals aimed at reforming the honor process, including Benos’ referendum — frequently, the group also failed to reach quorum, and could not even vote on these proposed changes. Meetings were often attended by between 14 and 19 members out of a total 27.

Consequently, Benos put forth his referendum to the University Board of Elections rather than relying on the referendum to come from the Honor Committee as a body. The referendum went public Jan. 25 and garnered the required 1,250 signatures in less than nine days, officially surpassing the threshold Feb. 3.

First-year College student Avery Donmoyer supports the proposed change, hoping that reducing the gravity of the sanction might inspire students to actually follow the Honor code, report themselves and others — should they break the code — and therefore more effectively maintain the community of trust.

“I think [expulsion] can, in a way, almost deter students from paying attention to the Honor code because they're too afraid of these immediate and severe and permanent consequences that they don't believe in the system anymore,” Donmoyer said.

Other students have also expressed support for the referendum, including second-year Engineering student Abby Dawley, who agreed that the change would be beneficial to the University community. 

“I personally know someone who was expelled for an Honor violation, and I know that it really messed up his course in life,” Dawley said. “I think that as young people, we do need to be checked for our actions but at the same time, we are still learning and people deserve the opportunity to learn from their actions.”

Apart from student support, the referendum has also garnered endorsements from student groups, including the School of Law Student Bar Association, and the Darden Student Association Board. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Council expressed support for the appearance of the referendum on the ballot.

The proposal is not popular among all groups at the University, though. After being introduced to the referendum at a meeting of the Faculty Senate, Education Prof. Patricia Jennings, chair-elect of the Faculty Senate expressed concern that the informed retraction and a guilty verdict would result in the same sanction if the referendum passes — a two-semester leave of absence. An IR allows students accused of an Honor offense to admit guilt and make amends to the community by taking a two-semester leave of absence. 

Particularly, Jennings said she was concerned that this may reduce the incentive among students to utilize the informed retraction and admit guilt when confronted with a violation, and instead go through with a trial where they are declared guilty.

“I feel like as an academic institution, we really want to promote academic integrity,” Jennings said. “If we don't have good academic integrity here, it reduces our credibility as an institution.”

Jennings did note the significance that Honor plays at the University — after arriving at the University from a different institution, Jennings was quickly made aware of the distinct role of the Committee at the University in comparison to peer institutions. Jennings told The Cavalier Daily she did not realize the level of student involvement and control over the system until her arrival. 

“In the other places where I've worked in the past, the students didn't have the same amount of time, or the same level of involvement, and did not lead these kinds of processes,” Jennings said.

Despite her concerns regarding the role Benos’ specific referendum could play in disincentivizing informed retractions, Jennings is generally in support of reforming the Honor system. Right now, Jennings said that many of her colleagues do not handle Honor offenses through the Honor Committee because of slow case processing times or unwillingness to follow through the process.

“Mainly, I think it is because they either find the system too cumbersome or they don't think it's effective, or those are the things I've heard anyway,” Jennings said. 

Professors who catch students cheating on exams or plagiarizing on papers may or may not opt to report them to the Honor Committee — some professors chose to handle cheating without an official report because of the challenges they face with the Honor system. 

If and when a faculty member reports an Honor offense, the reporter is interviewed by two student investigators. Following the initial interview, the reporter is given a chance to respond to any statements made in the accused student’s interview and is expected to cooperate with the investigation as a student hearing panel is convened to deliberate on the offense. This process can take months at times.

Jennings recently reported an Honor offense for the first time and said she was not completely satisfied with the process, stating that during the investigation she felt she was interrogated — as if she had also done something wrong. 

“When the faculty does try to step up and use the system, we can start feeling like we're being interrogated, like we did something wrong,” Jennings said. 

While Jennings does not feel that the referendum will fix all of the current issues with the Honor system if passed, she does believe that the conversations about how to recommit the community are very important. 

“The biggest message that I think is important is, let's maintain our academic integrity here,” Jennings said. “It is really important to our reputation as a university and I think students need to understand that when you leave here with a degree that you want to be proud of it.”

In order for the referendum to pass, 10 percent of the student body will need to vote in favor of the referendum, and 60 percent of those voting in total will need to be in favor.  

The last election when an Honor referendum was put to a student vote was in 2019 and the proposal barely surpassed the required 10 percent threshold. Voter turnout was merely 10.51 percent, per results released by the University Board of Elections. Due to these low turnout rates in 2019, the Committee opted not to submit any referenda last year.

These recent turnout rates prompted Benos to form a working group aimed at exposing more students to information about the referendum. Chaired by Benos, the group is made up of 11 total members, 10 of which are Honor Committee members. The final member is Ceci Cain, vice president for administration of Student Council and fourth-year College student.

The working group aims to educate students and University community members about the proposed reform, form partnerships with student organizations to disseminate information about the reform and the Honor system’s function more generally and promote access to the March ballot by teaching community members where and how to vote.

If passed, the referendum will be historic in its alterations to the University’s iconic Honor system. Expulsion has been the sanction since the first recorded Honor trial in 1851 and the system’s inception in 1842. 

“The purpose of the Honor code is really to have us be the best people we can be, and to just inspire this discourse of mutual trust and respect,” Donmoyer said. 

Community members are encouraged to share their thoughts regarding the proposed refenda at a town hall hosted by Cavalier Daily on March 1 at 7 p.m. Students will have the opportunity to vote in all student elections — including voting on the referendum — beginning next Wednesday March 2 at 10 a.m. Voting runs until Friday March 4 at 4 p.m.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that the proposed referendum had garnered an endorsement from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Council. In fact, the GSASC only endorsed the referendum's appearance on on the ballot during University-wide elections. A previous version of this article also misstated the threshold needed to pass the Honor referendum. The article has been corrected to reflect these corrections.