Nine students spoke out both against and in support of an amendment to the constitution of the Honor Committee that will be voted on this week at a town hall held by The Cavalier Daily Tuesday evening — the proposal on the ballot seeks to amend Article II of the Honor Committee’s constitution by easing the single sanction for committing an Honor offense from expulsion to a two-semester leave of absence.
The sanction for taking Informed Retraction — which allows students to admit guilt within a period of seven days after their accusation and take a two-semester leave of absence — will remain unchanged, as there are no proposals on the ballot to alter this sanction.
At the event, which was live-streamed to the public on The Cavalier Daily Facebook page, University community members were invited to participate either by speaking during the event or submitting comments ahead of time that could be read by moderators during the town hall. Of the nine participants, six were in favor of the referendum and two were opposed. The final participant voiced general concern about trust in the Honor system.
Second-year College student Lexi Baker, a news writer who covers the Honor Committee, and Lauren O’Neil, news editor and third-year College student, moderated the event.
This is the first time in over five years that the student body will vote on such a fundamental change to the University’s Honor system. Since the Honor Committee’s adoption of a constitution in 1977, there have been nearly a dozen attempts to alter the constitution, none of which have achieved majority support among student voters.
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 surpassed the required 10 percent threshold by only 0.51 percent. Due to such a low turnout rate in 2019, the Committee opted not to submit any referenda in 2021.
Rep. Christopher Benos, third-year Law student and author of the referendum, spoke at the town hall in favor of his proposed amendment, acknowledging that the measure is a “compromise,” but adding that he believed “every person is worthy of a second chance” that expulsion does not offer — especially given what he cited as concerns about bias and justice within the system.
During the fall, the Committee debated yet 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.
“Expulsion severely deters reporting,” Benos said. “Low reporting leads faculty to punish students on an ad-hoc basis. This ad-hoc punishment invites further inequity and is plagued by biases based on identity or background. Expulsion, as it currently operates, thus only shifts inequities and punishment from Honor juries to faculty, without any accountability or transparency.”
According to the Committee’s Bicentennial Report, 28 percent of students found guilty between 2012 and 2017 were international students despite only making up 10 percent of the student population. Asian American students comprised 27.2 percent of all reports and made up about 12 percent of the student population in the same period. Black students are over-represented by 2.7 percentage points, at 8.7 percent of reported students and 6 percent of University students, according to the same report.
Andy Chambers, chair of the Honor Committee and fourth-year College student, disagreed with this argument for the referenda, and believed that taking this step would forestall a later possibility of moving to a multi-sanction system — one where various offenses would lead to varying degrees of sanction.
“We had four proposals and this was the only single sanction one on the table and yet this is one we're left with,” Chambers said. “And it never left the committee actually because of those 17 members — only about 10 to 12 ever bothered to show up to a committee meeting.”
A group of 17 Honor Committee members co-signed a response to Chambers’ critique, explaining that the cost of expulsion’s severity is that it can disincentivize reporting and increase juries’ willingness to acquit. This group included Benos, Rep. Tim Dodson, first-year Law student and Rep. Achintya TCA, graduate student — all of whom participated in the town hall.
Chambers has opposed the referenda before, emphasizing the impact on low-income students and the possible disincentive to admit guilt through an Informed Retraction since the sanction is no different than going through trial.
Many commenters commented on an anonymous guest column published in The Cavalier Daily which reflected on the experience of expulsion, including third-year College student Bridget Kennedy.
“Recently, after reading about the experiences of people who have been reported to Honor or expelled from the University, I worry about how people are able to learn from their mistakes,” Kennedy said. “No student should be branded as irredeemable to the point of expulsion. The reality of the single sanction of expulsion is one with which I'm disillusioned because I do not see anyone in the community trusting in the system.”
Dodson also spoke to the way that expulsion functioned to undermine trust in the whole system by reducing reporting.
“The high stakes of honor are deterring students and faculty alike from reporting potential offenses, which in turn allows dishonorable conduct to go unchecked,” Dodson said. “The combination of severe underreporting and what is a permanent punishment have created what amounts to almost like a bad luck lottery — our own version of The Hunger Games.”
A comment submitted by third-year College student Mario Rosales pointed to the sentiment that “most students don’t care about Honor” in his experience, and hoped for a more expansive re-engagement with the values of the Honor system.
“Honor seems to be estranged from that which it is meant to ethically support and guide,” Rosales said. “So, I continue to wonder whether Honor will do anything to improve its relationship to the broader community as a whole beyond reforming its sanctioning system.”
Voting opened on Wednesday at 10 a.m. and will close Friday, March 4 at 4 p.m. Students will receive an email with a personalized voting link Wednesday or can click on the orange “Vote” button on the University Board of Elections’ website.