The Vox Alumni Initiative hosted a virtual discussion exploring the repercussions of the recently-passed Honor referendum, faculty buy-in to the Honor system and the meaning of the community of trust Wednesday afternoon.
The discussion panel was composed of four past Honor Committee chairs, Andy Chambers, fourth-year College student and current Honor Committee chair, and University President Jim Ryan. Past chairs included Donna Byrd, Jimmy Fang, Thomas Hall and Lillie Lyon. The discussion was moderated by Richard Gard, alumni magazine editor and Class of 1981 alumnus.
The Vox Alumni Initiative was founded by the U.Va. Alumni Association to better capture the diverse opinions of the University’s 250,000 alumni. The panel is the second output of the initiative — the inaugural project was a survey of alumni spanning 50 graduation years to gauge alumni opinions on Honor, University experiences and Thomas Jefferson.
According to the survey, favorable views of the Honor system are steadily decreasing as each graduation year passes, with 78 percent of respondents from the class of 1970 expressing high favorability for the Honor system in comparison to just 20 percent of the Class of 2020.
During the student-wide elections carried out by the University Board of Elections between March 2 and 4, a referendum to reduce the Honor Committee’s guilty sanction from expulsion to a two-semester leave of absence passed by a ratio of four votes to one.
Honor Rep. Christopher Benos, third-year Law student, originally brought forth the proposal to the Honor Committee in the fall. When it failed to pass, Benos composed a petition to UBE for the referendum to appear on the ballot during student-wide elections. The referendum received 1,600 signatures, surpassing the required 1,250 and subsequently received 4,811 — 80.5 percent — votes in favor.
Ryan framed the discussion with three observations about the recently passed referendum. First, Ryan said that he would not have voted for the referendum, as he thinks the change does not require a student to acknowledge their actions before returning to the community.
“I believe it's a mistake to replace the single sanction of expulsion with a single sanction of suspension that carries with it an automatic right of readmission regardless of the severity of the offense, or whether students have accepted responsibility, or whether they've made amends,” Ryan said. “I believe we should ask more of our students.”
With the referendum, the guilty sanction and the punishment for taking the Informed Retraction will be the same — a two-semester leave of absence. The IR allows students to admit guilt within seven days after the initial interviews have taken place.
In response to a question about the chairs’ personal views on a single-sanction system, Hall said that during his time as chair, he was a very strong supporter of single sanction because it set the University apart from peer institutions — many of these universities have honor systems guided by multi-sanction systems. However, Hall equally emphasized the importance of gauging the student body’s opinion of single sanction to guide decision-making.
“During my seven years at the University, I think there were at least two votes on the single sanction and I think that is important from a buy-in perspective to make sure that the then-current students feel like that they have had a say,” Hall said.
This past fall, a total of five proposals were brought forward internally by Honor Committee members, four of which would have created a multi-sanction system. Chambers introduced two of these proposals, but both maintained the possibility of expulsion. Ultimately, all five proposals failed to pass internally, with Benos’ referendum receiving the most support.
The Committee has considered a multi-sanction system in the past — in 2005, the student body was polled on whether or not the committee should continue to consider possibilities for multi-sanction systems, to which 59 percent of students who voted responded yes. Chambers ran on a platform centered around significant constitutional overhaul in the form of a multi-sanction system, but the Committee ultimately failed to enact a proposal of this nature.
During the event, Gard shared a poll with audience members that asked, “Do you favor a two-semester suspension as the new punishment for Honor violations?” Of those present, 59 percent chose “against,” 25 percent chose “other or undecided” and 16 percent chose “for.”
Ryan did say that while he disagrees with the referendum, he does believe in the importance of student-self governance — therefore, he said, his true concern lies in the fact that only 25 percent of students participated in the election.
The highest turnout in student-wide elections this year was on the Honor referendum — 6,010 students or 23.8 percent, voted. The last time the Committee put referenda up to a vote in 2020, the proposals had just over 9 percent turnout.
Ryan also said that in his view, the Honor system — as an institution salient to students and as a functioning body — is not dead, though he hopes the change will reinvigorate it.
“Instead of weakening the Honor system, I think it's more likely that this change will reinvigorate it, as most case numbers have dropped over time as have guilty verdicts,” Ryan said.
Lyon spoke up to share her experience as an advisor to accused students, where she often heard complaints of inequity or unfairness. Lyon shared her belief that a lot of Honor violations go unreported, causing the few students who are reported to sometimes find it difficult to understand why they are facing consequences but their peers are not.
“I think the best answer [to low case reporting] is exactly what the Committee has always tried to do, which is educate the community as much as possible about how the system works, be as responsive as possible to students and faculty and handle the cases that do come to its desk as effectively as possible,” Lyon said.
Chambers commented that jury nullification — a process through which the jury agrees that the accused student is guilty but votes for the student to be found not guilty because they do not believe in the system — is also a looming issue facing the committee. Chambers said that survey results from jurists indicate some jurists may vote not guilty during a trial regardless of whether the sanction is as high stakes as expulsion.
“For a long time we've collected post-hearing surveys to try and gauge these attitudes, to see if something else would have corrected nullification and we've compiled aggregate data over about three or four years of hearings of those who voted not guilty,” Chambers said. “I think about 80 percent said that they would [still] have not voted guilty had there been a different sanction and their vote was set either way.”
According to the Honor Committee website, the system exists for a singular purpose — to uphold the community of trust. The community of trust is an unspoken agreement between members of the University community not to lie, cheat or steal and is intended to guide any individual’s actions.
“We aim to cultivate habits that will inform our work habits long after we graduate; to assume the best in each other; and to hold fast to notions of right and wrong, even when doing so comes at personal cost,” the website says. “Through this collective effort, our ultimate end is to live and work in a community of trust, where honesty and mutual respect are the baseline for all our interactions and academic endeavors.”
In the final part of the discussion, Gard asked panelists to comment on what will happen to the community of trust now that violators are allowed to return after a two-semester leave of absence.
Lyon said she thinks the point of Honor is to create shared values and establish a baseline for the community, regardless of the severity of the sanctions.
“The goal of the Honor Code is to help spur that conversation, to help spur that spirit and to give us that baseline to build off of,” Lyon said. “So it's not just tied to the Honor system at all and certainly not just to the sanction.”
Byrd elaborated on Lyon’s comment about the spirit of Honor by recalling her speech to the Class of 2019. When students arrive at the University under the Honor Code, they already implicitly have the trust of other community members — it is up to students to practice Honor everyday so as to not lose this trust.
“One of the main focuses of the speech was about the importance of when Honor exists in your own person and in a community and when trust exists, and if they're both present, then you're able to learn from each other,” Byrd said. “You're able to reach across the table and you're able to build coalitions and ultimately solve difficult problems.”
Attendees were then asked how much Honor influences their lives, with 72 percent of participants choosing “a lot”, 23 percent choosing “some” and the last 4 percent evenly split between “little” and “none”.
On Monday, Chambers announced that due to the inability of members to meet quorum he would not use his capacity as chair to call meetings for the rest of the term. The next Committee, which convenes in April, will be tasked with passing the necessary bylaws to ensure that the recent Constitutional change can be carried out effectively.