When the University opened their doors to the first class of students March 7, 1825, the first group of young men on Grounds signed their names in a matriculation book — while the ink dried on the page, the men made a pledge not to lie to a professor or cheat on any exams. This basic promise would be the first iteration of the honor system that students pledge to almost 200 years later.
In the decades that followed, the honor system would undergo a number of transformative changes, from the establishment of an official Honor Committee in 1912 to procedural modifications that established two-committee processes, random student juries and investigative panels.
Since 1825, one thing has remained the same — the Committee has always operated under a single-sanction system. Critiques of single sanction and questions about a multi-sanction are not new, though. In 1971, the Committee expelled a student for stealing Coke cans from a vending machine. The next day, the Committee nullified the decision the next day following student uproar.
The notorious “Coke Case” sparked debates about single-sanction that resulted in the formation of “Hoos Against Single Sanction” in 2005 and culminated with the constitution on the ballot today.
This referenda marks the closest the Committee has come to a multi-sanction system in history. Voting on the Committee’s referendum opens Tuesday and closes Thursday.
If passed in the student body vote, the new constitution will be the first successful multi-sanction legislation since the Honor system’s induction in 1842.
In order for the new constitution to take effect, at least three-fifths of the voting population must vote in favor, as long as 10 percent of the student body votes in favor of such an amendment.
The new constitution outlines a number of changes, the largest of which is an expansion of possible sanctions which includes but is not limited to a two-semester leave of absence, expulsion, education and amends. These new sanctions will be applied on a case-by-case basis — there is currently no framework for what qualifies for each of these sanctions.
Laying the groundwork
Last spring, a student referendum was passed in the student body elections which reduced the single sanction from expulsion to a two-semester leave of absence. After unsuccessful attempts to pass the referendum within the Committee because of low attendance at Committee meetings, third-year Law student Rep. Christopher Benos authored the referendum separately from the Committee and submitted it to the UBE.
Benos created a working group — composed of Honor Committee representatives and Ceci Cain, Student Council president and graduate student — and ultimately gathered more than 1,600 signatures in order to get the proposal on the ballot.
Prior to this, no efforts to alter the sanction of expulsion had been successful even after nearly a dozen attempts since the Honor Committee’s adoption of a formal constitution in 1977.
Gabrielle Bray, chair of the Committee and fourth-year College student, said last spring’s referendum was a stepping stone to the multi-sanction system.
“It was always seen as the compromise and not the final endpoint for the Honor system,” Bray said. “I felt coming into this role like the political momentum was finally there.”
In September, Bray announced plans for an Honor Constitutional Convention. Her aim was to solicit feedback from students in drafting official language for a multi-sanction system. Bray sent an email inviting Contracted Independent Organizations to respond if they were interested in partaking in the Convention. Ultimately, 30 CIOs out of over 600 sent delegates to the Convention.
The original plan for the Convention was to hold nine sessions in which delegates would discuss the Community of Trust, sanctions and the equity of the Constitution. In October, the Convention was postponed after Committee members raised concerns about representation — specifically from graduate schools — and said they felt the planning for the Convention had been rushed. Committee members also critiqued the exclusion of Special Status Organizations like the University Judiciary Committee and Student Council.
The Convention was pushed back again in December after the shooting in November. After winter break, roughly 20 of the 30 original delegates met before classes started and drafted four possible proposals for a multi-sanction system. The Committee discussed each proposal in the Jan. 29 meeting but ultimately landed on a referendum of their own.
Expulsion on the table again
Bray said she sees a multi-sanction system — with case outcomes tailored to the individual offenses — as more conducive to rehabilitation and honorable behavior than the previous system.
According to Bray, this is especially important in light of the disproportionate sanctioning of international students over domestic students. On average, international students were 18 percent more likely to be sanctioned by Honor compared to domestic students as of 2017 — and low-income students.
“You want a system based on people, making them into a Community of Trust,” Bray said. “People who wanted something like multi-sanction probably shouldn't be the biggest fan of the current single sanction [of a two semester leave of absence] either, especially because [of] the way it disproportionately harms international students and lower income students.”
Bray said that the University is currently the only higher institution in the country that lacks expulsion as an outcome of an Honor violation. The decision to bring back expulsion, though, has been a source of contention during Committee discussions
Bray also said that, while expulsion is sometimes necessary, she envisions the sanction being used only in extreme circumstances.
“I understand why people are concerned about expulsion coming back, but I think I ask that they recognize that expulsion is all about the minority of cases where a student has done something truly heinous and has no desire to make amends,” Bray said.
In last year’s vote, 80.5 percent of student voters supported the Honor amendment that reduced the single sanction of expulsion to a two-semester leave of absence. Second-year College student Ben Wieland said he questions the Committee's choice to bring back expulsion following last year’s historic vote to remove it as a sanction.
“I felt like the student body pretty definitively voted that they did not want expulsion to be an option as a penalty… which I thought sent a pretty clear message to those on our Committee and just generally to the community about how the student body felt,” Wieland said.
On the other hand, some students see expulsion as an integral aspect of the University’s historic honor system. Expulsion has been the sanction since the first recorded Honor trial in 1851 and the system’s inception in 1842.
Second-year College student Ryland Wilson said he feels that many students feel too comfortable cheating, and a system with consequential outcomes is necessary to curtail this behavior.
“I think the U.Va. Honor system, until last year, had been this very strong tradition,” Wilson said. “And it feels like now if we start rolling back elements of the U.Va. Honor code, it’s something that’s less special and that’s no longer the model for other universities and even high schools to look up to.”
Guilt and sanctioning panels
In addition to including expulsion as a sanction, the proposal also implements a panel that will decide guilt and a panel that will decide sanctions. On the panel for guilt — made up of five Committee members and seven randomly selected students — five-sevenths of the student portion of the panel would have to decide that the offense calls for expulsion and other “permanent sanctions.”
The five Committee members on the panel for guilt will decide sanctions in the sanctioning panel. Currently, there is only a panel for guilt made up solely of students, solely of Committee members or both at the accused student’s discretion. The panel for guilt determines guilt and sanctioning under the current system.
Fourth-year College student Rep. Hannah Shapiro said that including expulsion and requiring five-sevenths of students to vote for permanent sanction improves the integrity of student self-governance.
“I do think that students should reserve the right to determine the individuals that they want to have in the community,” Shapiro said. “It's in the student's best interest to have the most expansive use of student self-governance possible.”
Cici Liu, delegate of the Platypus Society and fourth-year College student, was surprised to see that the sanctioning panel would not include students. Liu was a delegate at the Honor Constitutional Convention and played a role in the drafting of the new constitution.
“I suppose I was still operating under the assumption that a trial by jury of your peers would s
till stand as a principle for both panels,” Liu said. “I was surprised by that.”
In addition to debating the inclusion of expulsion as a sanction, Committee members chose to maintain “beyond a reasonable doubt” as the standard of evidence for guilt.
The standard of evidence used in Honor offenses was a source of debate amongst Committee members. Some Committee members, including second-year Law Rep. Daniel Elliott, lobbied for a lower standard of evidence, citing that evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” would affect the efficiency of trials.
Fourth-year College student Rep. Sullivan McDowell — a co-author for the new constitution — felt that the standard of evidence should be beyond a reasonable doubt as it will be more reflective of what the students want. McDowell was previously in favor of a “clear and convincing” standard, which dictates that evidence should be clear and explicit without substantial doubt.
“This new system and [evidence] beyond a reasonable doubt was what I thought would make students more comfortable,” McDowell said.
Through all of the recent debate, Bray ultimately hopes that the new constitution will prioritize the rebuilding of the Community of Trust, and restore integrity and pride in the Honor system.
“We've always prided U.Va. on having a unique and historic honor system,” Bray said. “It is something we can be beyond proud of because of what it does for our community.”
Voting will take place through the online voting service BigPulse. Results will be announced March 3.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated that Honor referenda need at least three-fifths of the voting population to vote in favor of the amendment with at least 10 percent student body turnout. This is incorrect — referenda need at least three-fifths vote in favor of the amendment provided 10 percent of the eligible voting population vote in favor of such an amendment.