Two weeks ago, students at the University made the resounding decision to restructure the antiquated single sanction the Honor Committee has used since its inception. With unusually high turnout, the resolution to reduce the penalty for committing an Honor infraction from permanent expulsion to a two-semester leave of absence passed with more than 80 percent of the vote. Where students stand is clear.
However, the lack of support by University administration hinders the more complete progress that must be made to support the referenda. Despite the fact that University administrators do not have the power to affect Honor itself, there is no doubt that their voices can be influential in swaying the beliefs of the student body. When University administrators fail to support the new referenda — and along with it, a more rehabilitative Honor system — they discourage students from making the changes necessary to supplement the referenda — by laws and updated critical case documents, for instance.
Until recently, it wasn’t clear to me where alumni or University leadership stood. Just before voting opened in the spring elections, University President Jim Ryan and Whittington Clement, Rector of the Board of Visitors — both University alumni — released indecisive statements. These statements tried so extensively to appeal to competing interests that they failed to say anything meaningful about the merits of the resolution at hand. However, on the last day of elections — speaking to the Board of Visitors who would later go on to extend his contract — Ryan said that if he were voting, he would not do so in favor of the referendum, adding that “this is maybe the epitome of student self-governance.” Ryan’s statement underscores the tangible undertones of condescension that has marred all of the messaging I have seen from leadership regarding this referendum. Their official position seems to be that our choice to step beyond the chains of our unfortunate past means we fail to understand the “core values” of truthfulness and fairness that have historically guided our institution. This is simply wrong.
Ryan’s rhetoric demonstrates the work that must be done to change the way we engage with discussions surrounding Honor. While this past week was a critical step in the right direction, it must be just the beginning of our journey towards a more humanistic understanding of what it means to be an honorable member of the University community. Collectively changing the community’s perception of Honor requires that we challenge those who refuse to move beyond simplistic notions of honor and justice. When our leaders make statements that construct a debate in terms of “core values” versus student self-governance, they obscure the significant fact that the core values of Honor have much more complexity and nuance than a single sanction can respect. Further, these lofty ideals must be placed in the very real context of human imperfection. When people fail to meet the high standards the community of trust has set for them, who are we to deem them unworthy of reentry into the very same community that is imperfect in and of itself?
We like to pretend that by building this oasis where no one lies, cheats or steals, we are free to act in ways that we couldn’t otherwise act. But the reality is we can never create a community where no one is going to lie, cheat or steal by simply banishing those who we catch. Our social obsession with punishing people after they do something wrong blinds us to the reality that true change can only come once we address root causes. At the end of the day, we simply cannot punish our way to perfection. We can’t bully our way to a community of trust. To ignore this fact is simply to disregard the fact that we are a community of humans — a group of flawed people. Unfortunately, in our case, we are a community of flawed people pretending to be something better — something holier.
We must demand that our leaders reject the urge to simplify what isn’t simple. We must demand that they are bold enough to step beyond the weathered traditions of our past and fight to bring this institution into the bright future that awaits it. We must also demand more from the Honor Committee itself. Again, the single sanction is incapable of recognizing the complexity of the “core values” referenced in the statements from our leaders. Unfortunately, this referendum only leaves us with a revised single sanction. The student body must continue to push for an Honor system that is dynamic and multi-faceted. We need an Honor system that acknowledges the nuances that come with every situation. We need an Honor system that places stories before sanctions. We need an Honor system that is both reactionary and preventative. This latter point is crucial — Honor shouldn’t only work to punish students once they are convicted of an Honor offense, but it also should be more involved in the process of promoting honorable behavior across Grounds. We can achieve all this in a variety of forms, but whatever form it takes it is a crucial next step in our push for a more honorable Honor system.
Nathan Onibudo is a Viewpoint Writer for The Cavalier Daily. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.