During student body elections this May, students voted to change one of the University’s oldest institutions — the Honor system — by passing a referendum that reduces the guilty sanction for an Honor offense from expulsion to a two-semester leave of absence. Throughout contentious debate surrounding this momentous term, fourth-year College student Andy Chamber has headed the Honor Committee as its chair. In an exit interview with The Cavalier Daily, Chambers expressed concern that Honor will be able to maintain its prestigious legacy in the wake of the changes.
Chambers said his first true interaction with the University’s Honor Code was when he traveled to Charlottesville during high school for a scholarship weekend and was trusted to complete an exam without a proctor — after feeling this influence, Chambers joined the Honor Committee during his first year.
“I remember thinking that it was really awesome that I was trusted in that way and hadn't really been trusted that way in high school or anywhere else,” Chambers said.
Chambers first served as a support officer, assisting the Committee with investigations, educating the student body on the Honor system and advising accused students. During those two years as a support officer, Chambers said he found many mentors within the Committee and with their guidance, realized he may be well-suited for other positions within the organization entailing greater responsibility.
“I had a really great roster of people who were above me who trained me, who made me really engaged with [Honor],” Chambers said.
Chambers successfully ran for an executive position following two years of acting as a support officer and was elected vice-chair for hearings for the 2020-21 term.
It was within this position that Chambers realized that Honor Comittee leadership made numerous decisions that he either did not agree with or did not believe to be the most efficient. These observations, in part, propelled him to run for and be elected as chair in April 2021.
Notably, Chambers said he thinks the Informed Retraction — a stipulation that allows a student to admit guilt and take a two semester leave of absence following the completion of initial interviews — had a lot of “philosophical holes.” In his entrance interview with The Cavalier Daily, Chambers noted that taking a year off of college can disproportionately impact students who lack the means to cover the costs of living away from school for a year, and voiced his hope to explore other options for IR sanctioning.
“There were a few moments in my time either as a support officer on the Committee, where you see things going wrong, you see decisions being made that really frustrate you, and perhaps they provide an injustice students or perhaps they are just inefficient — perhaps they're just dumb,” Chambers said. “So you look at it, and you're like this is dumb, I don't want this to be done this way. And the only way to do that is to get in the driver's seat.”
When entering the position, Chambers’ said his goals included transitioning the Honor system from single-sanction to multi-sanction system, using Honor co-sponsorship funds to support other organizations on-Grounds and increasing Honor education events.
Despite these hopes, the bulk of Chambers’ term became dominated by debate over fundamental constitutional changes to the Honor system. Coming into the term off the heels of record turnout during the 2021 student body elections, Chambers expressed that the Committee was situated “to put up some constitutional referenda that will provide the student body agency with the system.”
Beginning in September, the Committee began to discuss serious changes to its constitution. However as options were discussed and debated, the Committee found itself unable to form a consensus.
After it became clear that the Committee was not going to internally pass referenda to put up to a student body vote, Rep. Christopher Benos, third-year Law student, submitted the referenda that would eventually pass with more than 80 percent of the vote to the University Board of Elections independently, gathering more than 2,000 signatures to get it on the ballot. Expulsion has been the guilty sanction since the inception of the first written Honor constitution in 1977 and can be traced back to the 1800s.
Chambers voiced concern that election turnout demonstrates a lack of “buy-in” from the student body to the Honor system — just 23.75 percent of the student body voted on the Honor referendum this spring.
“In years past, we would expect a lot greater input, and less than one in four students bothered to open a link on their phone to vote,” Chambers said. “That's really frustrating that three-quarters of students didn't see it as worth their time to click a link.”
Chambers said he also observed “misinformation” being spread about the referendum, and that in order to maintain the Honor system as an ongoing institution, students must be educated on the system’s function and role at the University. More specifically, Chambers specifically cited a debate he chaired between the Washington Literary Society and Debating Union and the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, during which members of both debating teams voiced “rampant misinformation” and fundamentally misunderstood the referendum, according to Chambers
“There's a lot of PR and education that needs to happen, because it hasn't been happening and especially as we get into this next year, there will be one class of U.Va. students who have been to a proper in-person U.Va. introduction who know the Honor system to some degree and they'll be fourth-years,” Chambers said. “And then they'll graduate and they'll be gone.”
After the referendum passed, Chambers wrote in an email to Honor Committee members that he would not call any meetings for the remainder of his term, adding that the group was a “lame-duck” Committee and that he plans to leave the task of passing appropriate bylaws to the newly-elected representatives.
In reflecting on his time as chair, Chambers questioned whether or not it would have been simply easier to support the successful referenda rather than openly voice his opposition to the proposal and go against Benos and others who supported the change. Ultimately, however, Chambers said he could not support the referendum in good faith because he believes it was not what is best for the Honor system or the University community.
“There are two options — to do what is easy and profitable and to do what you think is true and good at the time,” Chambers said. “I did what I thought was true and good.”
Outside of the discussion surrounding referenda, Chambers said he was disappointed in the Committee’s failure to complete some notable tasks this term, including its failure to pass fully-drafted by-laws eliminating the response interview portion of an Honor trial trial, which allows reporters and the accused to respond to the opposite party’s initial claims but can take weeks. This by-law change was up for a vote during the Committee’s Feb. 26 meeting, but failed as only 17 members were in attendance — two short of quorum.
The lack of quorum and Chambers’ decision to cancel remaining meetings also prevented the Committee from passing bylaws to differentiate between the sanction for expulsion and the Informed Retraction following the referendum, another issue Chambers expressed concern about.
Committee members hoped to pass by-laws to distinguish the sanctions — possibly through a notation on a guilty student's transcript noting that they Committed an honor offense — but were unable without quorum.
For incoming members in particular, Chambers advised that participation in Committee meetings is crucial.
“To be an active Committee member, to talk to the faculty, to talk to the students, to talk to each other, to be engaged and show up, right” Chambers said. “That’s the other big one. Please come to Committee meetings.”
Chambers provided some parting words to the remaining and incoming Committee members, encouraging them to avoid the factions that formed over the past year.
“There's a lot of lies, a lot of backdoor dealings and politicking and things that I think really discolored the Committee,” Chambers said. “I think the way an Honor Committee works best is with good faith and with burying hatchets and coming back together and trying to dig something out of the ashes that is the current Honor system.”
One way for the Committee to avoid this culture, Chambers said, is for Committee members to ensure they are constantly guided by the will of the student body they represent.
“[Try] to compel the Committee to turn to their constituents in a way that I don't think this Committee necessarily did very well,” Chambers said.
Chambers hopes that following the implementation of the recent referendum, more reports will start to flow into the Honor system and that Honor will be able to repair its relationship with other organizations on Grounds.
“I hope it can avoid being the punching bag of other organizations,” Chambers said. “A lot of this year, a lot of the reason the referendum passed is because other key organizations saw it in their benefit to take aim at Honor.”
Ultimately, Chambers acknowledged that the new Committee will have to work cohesively to rebuild trust within the University community and increase knowledge of the Honor system’s function, should the institution maintain its historic presence at the University.
“There are many, many institutions and traditions that are dying as a byproduct of COVID, and unless something dramatic changes the next 12 months, Honor seems to be one of them,” Chambers said.