Students voted by a four-to-one ratio to pass a referendum to the Honor constitution in early March. This historic vote — which reduces the sanction of expulsion to a two-semester leave of absence — marked the largest change to the Honor system since its inception over 150 years ago.
It has not been a quick or easy road to change — this term, the Committee struggled with reaching quorum, internal debates and in-fighting and ultimately how to reconcile the past of Honor with the future of the Committee.
Looking back — expulsion and the single-sanction system
The first recorded Honor Trial in 1851 ended with expulsion, though a single-sanction expulsion system didn’t officially exist in writing until the introduction of a written constitution in 1977. Between 1919 and 2017, 1,104 students were expelled by the Honor Committee. The Honor system stands in contrast to the University's other sanctioning body, the University Judiciary Committee. UJC utilizes a multi-sanction system that sanctions guilty students through various means ranging from written warnings to expulsion from the University.
Since 1977, there have been almost a dozen failed attempts to alter the constitution. In 2001, members of the Honor Committee seriously considered a multi-sanction system, but it wasn’t until 2006 that a student organization — Hoos Against Single Sanction — developed the first proposal that juries should be able to decide the sanction for a guilty verdict based on individual case details. The proposal failed by 62 votes.
In 2011, another significant event concerning the Honor Committee stirred contention among the community — Jay Perkins, who was then a Law student at the University, was detained and harassed without reason by officers of the University Police Department. At the urging of those close to him, Perkins published a column in the Law School newspaper describing the experience. After the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s officer and two University Police Department lieutenants interrogated Perkins, he recanted the allegations. Shortly after this announcement, Perkins was charged with an Honor violation for allegedly fabricating a story about police misconduct.
Though Perkins’ case ended with an acquittal, he told The Cavalier Daily that the case was brought without all of the facts available to the public and the trauma “scarred [him] for life.”
In 2015, two Honor support officers put three referenda on the student-wide election ballot, one of which asked students to answer the non-binding question “should the Honor Committee consider implementing a multiple sanction system?” When the time came to vote, 51 percent of students voting in the election voted in favor of the proposal.
The next push for significant reform came this term, with Andy Chambers, chair of the Honor Committee and fourth-year College student, running on a campaign that promised a multi-sanction system and constitutional overhaul. While Chambers’ ideas resonated with members of the Committee, the group struggled consistently to achieve tangible results.
Last fall, a total of five proposals were proposed and deliberated by the Committee — the group landed on one drafted by Rep. Christopher Benos, third-year Law student, which would have extended the Informed Retraction period to up until the time of the trial and reduced the guilty sanction to a two-semester leave of absence.
The IR is a process through which any student can admit to a breach of the Honor code after being made aware that a report has been filed against them. Once the student admits guilt, they leave the University for two semesters.
Throughout the academic year, the Committee has struggled to reach quorum, which is necessary in order to vote on constitutional changes. In order to reach quorum, 19 members of the total 27 must be in attendance. Frequently throughout the fall and early spring, between 14 and 18 members attended meetings. As of the meeting held on Feb. 27, the committee had not reached quorum since Nov. 3.
The proposal did come to a vote Oct. 24, a meeting at which 19 of the 27 Honor representatives were present. However, five members voted against the constitutional changes, including three vice-chairs and two representatives, and thus the proposal ultimately failed to pass within the Committee.
Benos thus authored a petition to the University Board of Elections to have the referendum put on the student-wide election ballot in early March. Any student can submit a referendum for a binding constitutional amendment to the student body if they can garner at least 1,250 signatures on a petition for the referendum.
Benos’ petition went public Jan. 25 and ultimately received more than 1,600 signatures in under nine days. Once on the ballot, 10 percent of the student body must vote in favor of the proposed amendment and 60 percent of those voting must vote in favor for the amendment to pass, per the Honor Committee’s constitution.
After three days of voting, the referendum passed with the highest voter turnout on the entire ballot in the spring.
Students and faculty express mixed feelings towards referenda’s passage
When the referendum hit the ballot in March, 4,811 students voted in favor. Comparatively, two referenda were put to a student ballot in 2020 — neither pertaining to sanctioning processes, but both of which failed to meet the 10 percent student turnout threshold. Among those who voted in the election, some attributed their ballot to a belief that reform could create increased trust among students and faculty, while others voted against the provision for practical reasons.
Third-year College student Bridget Kennedy spoke in favor of the referendum at The Cavalier Daily’s Honor Town Hall, held the night before student-wide elections began. Kennedy’s support for the measure stemmed from a belief that expulsion as a sanction was too harsh regardless of offense, and that reformist measures would increase buy-in to the Honor system.
The ethics of expulsion have long been debated — while some favor a more rehabilitative sanction process, others uphold expulsion as a just punishment for those who violate the community of trust.
“I think that people might actually take some more time to report Honor offenses if they see reason for it [with the change], because their punishment won't be as severe,” Kennedy said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “I think that some people might take the Honor system more seriously.”
Kennedy was invested in the Honor system upon arrival at the University based on her impression of the system, even applying to serve as an Honor support officer her first year. However, Kennedy’s impression of the system changed when she saw rampant academic dishonesty at the University go unchecked during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As time went on, later, my impression of [Honor] changed especially over the course of the pandemic because I feel like seeing academic dishonesty became so much more common,” Kennedy said. “There wasn't much reporting on it because of how stressful the situation of the pandemic and online school was and how extreme the punishment was if somebody were found guilty of an Honor offense.”
Unlike Kennedy, Jack Stone, vice-chair for community relations and fourth-year Commerce student, campaigned against the referendum and talked about his decision as being influenced by practical considerations. Stone did not support the referendum because as it stands after the change, the sanction for filing an Informed Retraction is the same as for a student who is found guilty of an honor violation.
“Obviously, I think the students made the totally wrong decision, because the referendum didn’t make sense to me,” Stone said. “It definitely, I would say, reflects poorly on U.Va. and U.Va. students that they voted on this.”
Still, Stone added that he was pleased by high student turnout in the election. A total of 6,010 — or 23.75 percent — students voted on the referendum, the highest turnout of any individual vote on the ballot this year.
For Assoc. Commerce Prof. Steven Johnson, an Honor system creates trust between students and faculty at the University — something that he hopes is maintained even with this change. Even so, a single-sanction system can impact a faculty member’s decision regarding whether or not to report a suspected Honor violation, Johnson said.
“Even if there is a clear infraction, if it relates to something inconsequential for a course grade — for example, unauthorized collaboration on a simple homework — single sanction is a strong deterrent to reporting,” Johnson wrote. “Likewise, the possibility of a lengthy, time-consuming investigation and jury trial further deters reporting in all but the most flagrant and substantive violations.”
Honor investigations can take weeks or months, with due process rights for the accused ever more important given the high stakes of a trial with expulsion on the line — faculty have previously expressed complaints about this lengthy timeline.
Johnson recalled his experience at other universities that gave professors full discretion in deciding sanctions for cheating, and acknowledged that it can easily lead to preferential treatment and systemic inequities. At the same time, faculty discretion has the potential benefit of allowing for greater proportionality and mutual respect throughout the sanctioning process, Johnson said.
“An advantage of faculty discretion is it can align infractions and consequences in a more immediate and proportionate way,” Johnson said. “In some cases, it can also convert the process from being highly adversarial to one of mutual problem solving by faculty and students to identify root causes of cheating and to find ways to address those causes.”
During a Feb. 6 meeting of the Honor Committee, Chambers noted that he had recently been made aware of increased discussion among students surrounding the claim that Black students are more harshly penalized under the Honor’s current system — which might have driven further turnout.
The Bicentennial Report that Perkins contributed to after his accusation demonstrated disparities between the racial demographics of students at the University and those reported. Despite only making up 6 percent of University students, Black students made up 8.7 percent of reported students. Similarly, the Committee’s Statistical Transparency Reporting Portal shows that over the last eight semesters, Asian American students comprised 27.2 percent of all reports despite making up about 12 percent of the student population in the same period.
Discrepancies in the racial demographics of Honor cases are dictated by reports filed, Chambers said, which the Honor Committee itself does not control. Perkins expressed a similar sentiment, arguing that this reform does not go far enough.
“To be abundantly clear, U.Va. students typically face Honor charges after being accused by faculty or other students — the race and nationalities of the students accused by these groups are disproportionately Black, brown, and international — the recent Honor reforms don't seem to appreciate this fact,” Perkins wrote, noting that the reform will not alter interactions between students and faculty members in any significant way.
Benos, however, hopes that the reform will begin to rebuild Honor’s legitimacy amongst community members in two ways — by signalizing a readiness for reforms aimed at rehabilitation and by reducing the disproportionality of severe punishments.
“Removing expulsion first will build bridges to marginalized communities by ensuring that the most severe of outcomes cannot prospectively fall disproportionately on some students more than others,” Benos said. “Removing expulsion also rebrands Honor as a rehabilitative — not simply punitive — institution and will increase buy-in from students and faculty.”
Many incoming Honor representatives also voiced a commitment to future reform in written statements to The Cavalier Daily, with second-year Hamza Aziz specifically noting disparate reporting rates — rather than disparities in outcome — as an issue the next committee must address.
Looking forward — What comes next for the Committee
As outgoing representatives grapple with what to do in light of the momentous change granted by the student body’s vote, incoming representatives are preparing to take office. However, no Honor Committee meetings will be held for the rest of the term, per an email sent by Chambers Monday.
In the email, Chambers wrote he believes the group is a “lame-duck” Committee and that he plans to leave the task of passing appropriate bylaws to the newly-elected representatives in early April. As such, Chambers said that he does not plan to call any additional meetings of the Committee before the end of his term.
“In the interest of dedicating all efforts the Committee can muster toward creating a range of bylaw options for the incoming Committee to decide upon, I will not be calling any more meetings for the rest of the term,” Chambers said in the email to outgoing representatives.
Currently, any student found guilty of an Honor offense will have their case placed on hold until bylaw revisions are consistent with the new amendment to the Constitution. Chambers instructed representatives to take down report information for any student accused of an Honor violation before the current term ends so that the next Committee can reach out and process cases when ready.
Before Chambers announced the cancellation of all meetings, Stone told The Cavalier Daily that he did not believe the current Committee would have been able to meet quorum to pass any bylaws, and that he did not “see a point” in attending Honor meetings for the rest of the term anyway.
“I’m not going to give [Benos] this victory of getting these bylaws through,” Stone said. “It might sound like obstructionism — and it totally is. I will do all I can to prevent any bylaws this year from passing.”
In an email statement to The Cavalier Daily, Benos expressed disappointment with Chambers’ decision to cancel all remaining Committee meetings, adding that he does not plan to call a special session prior to the end of this term. Three representatives on the Committee can choose to call a special meeting at any point, and Chambers affirmed that he would send notice of any such meeting to the Committee. In the event that a meeting is called, quorum would remain at 19 members.
“[Chambers’] course of inaction is extraordinary, unprecedented and deeply irresponsible,” Benos said. “Our Committee is required to answer to the will of students … leadership is responsible for providing the tools — not the least of which is the foundation of a meeting — required to conduct legislative work.”
In the meantime, newly-elected representatives shared mixed reactions about the referendum and expressed hope that they will be able to address what they see as necessary changes to the system in their upcoming term.
Daniel Elliott, first-year Law student and incoming representative, wrote that he fully supported the referendum, noting that the change alters but does not weaken the Honor system.
“Changing the Honor System at U.Va. to reflect the idea that no one is beyond a second chance is a reflection of justice and of our values, not only as law students, but as a larger campus community that is dedicated to ensuring all students can learn and grow, regardless of their past,” Elliott said.
Elliott said he thinks the change is in line with the University’s tradition of student self-governance and will not ignore the historical significance of the Honor system at the University.
“It instead keeps alight the flame of self-governance that a student-run Honor System like ours holds dear,” Elliott said. “If we want to be a true embodiment of government over a campus that is by and for the students, then we must adapt to the values that the students adhere to, including redemption, second chances, restorative justice and fairness.”
Graduate student Rep. Kelly O’Meara, on the other hand, said he thinks the Informed and Conscientious Retraction reforms fundamentally altered the system to create fairer processes, and that because of these options he voted against the referendum. O’Meara will return to represent the University's School of Architecture in the Committee’s next term.
“Students are given the opportunity to own up to their mistakes, do the honorable thing and make amends through time off, then be welcomed back to the University and the Community of Trust,” O’Meara said. “The referendum puts forth the same sanction without students restoring their own Honor, nor the Honor of the Community of Trust.”
Three incoming Honor representatives — O’Meara, fourth-year College student Lauren McDowell and Gabrielle Bray, vice-chair for hearings and third-year College student — said they hope to implement a multi-sanction system this year in an email to The Cavalier Daily.
“I think the election results show a clear mandate for continued change, as voters I’ve talked to hoped this would be a push in a more progressive direction for honor, and I intend to follow that through to a multi-sanction system,” Bray said.
O’Meara said that a multi-sanction system that maintains expulsion as a sanction while also instituting various lesser sanctions would maintain academic integrity while reflecting what he sees as the will of the student body. While O’Meara would have liked to pass this reform before the recent referendum, he expressed that he has already spoken with other representatives about plans toward such a system.
“The only path I see forward is the full implementation of a multi-sanction system offering various penalties dependent upon the offense, with expulsion as an option as well as lesser sanctions for lesser offenses on the table,” O’Meara said.
As it stands, reworking the bylaws and the possibility of passing a multi-sanction system will be up to the new Committee when its term begins in early April — the group will elect a chair from the group of representatives, who will be responsible for guiding the Committee through any of these changes.
With the effects of a contentious term echoing in the trial room, it is sure to be yet another historic year.