Many of the Honor System’s principles originate from Thomas Jefferson’s own ideals and their application in the founding of the University. In his creation of a great public institution devoted to higher learning and educational freedom, Mr. Jefferson recruited several noted professors from Europe, who wasted little time in establishing their own preconceived notions of proper conduct and enforcing rigid discipline. Tensions ran high between students and faculty members, and on November 12, 1840, Professor John Davis was shot to death by a student in an attempt to quiet a disturbance on the Lawn. Both students and faculty were shocked by this incident and the need to resolve the conflict became gravely apparent. On July 4, 1842, in an effort to ease the tension between students and faculty, Professor Henry St. George Tucker offered the following resolution as a gesture of confidence in the students: “resolved, that in all future examinations … each candidate shall attach to the written answers … a certificate of the following words: I, A.B., do hereby certify on my honor that I have derived no assistance during the time of this examination from any source whatsoever.” The resolution was meant to govern conduct in the classroom only, but the students so strongly wished to be measured by their own standards that they unexpectedly assumed responsibility for the protection of this privilege. Consequently, for 170 years the System has been completely student-run.
Following the Civil War, the System became romantically tied to the idea of the Southern Gentlemen and men were permanently expelled for cheating at cards, insulting ladies, and defaulting on payments of debts. During this period, no formal accusatory procedures existed – honor violations were handled by a small group of students or the student body as a whole.
The rapid expansion of student enrollment along with the advent of both coeducation and integration has changed the student body from an all white male population to one composed of over 21,000 men and women from various backgrounds and ethnic groups. At the same time, several changes in the Honor System have made it more responsive to the new and expanded needs of the University community.
In 1952, the Bad Check Committee was established to handle the increasing number of student bad checks and to ensure a continuing good relationship between the University community and area merchants. Some years later, in 1969, the Honor System was revised to cover only honor violations committed within the boundaries of Charlottesville and Albemarle County, or wherever a student represented him/herself as a student of the University of Virginia. Students felt an unlimited scope endangered the effectiveness of the System by overextending its boundaries in the administrative sense. And then in 1977 the student body ratified a written constitution for the Honor Committee. Never before had the Committee worked under the restraints of a written constitution which could only be changed with the approval of students. For the first time, students facing trial were guaranteed certain rights in a written form which would be much more difficult than bylaws to change. The student body was also given the right to change the Honor System directly or override the will of the Honor Committee by popular referendum.
Three particularly important changes were made in the 1980′s. First, passage of a referendum in 1980 gave accused students a constitutional right to choose a trial panel composed to a mixture of randomly selected students and elected Committee members. Second, in 1984 the criterion of reprehensibility was changed to seriousness. This change eliminated consideration of extenuating circumstances in honor cases. Third, in 1987 the Honor Committee created an investigative panel to serve as a check on the thoroughness of investigations and the validity of investigator’s decisions.
In 1990 the student body approved a referendum which gave students the option of choosing an all random student jury panel for the first time in UVA history. The Fall of 1993 saw the beginning of a new investigation process. Random student investigators were eliminated and in their place, Honor Advisors began to investigate all cases. Additionally, the Investgative Panel was modified to allow both the Reporter and the investigated student to speak. The I-Panel began to make the final decision about whether to drop a case or render a formal accusation.
As the University has continued to change, the System has had to address new problems and issues facing the current student body. Changes in the past have helped the Committee to more effectively reach students and to protect them from wrongly being dismissed from the University. As the University continues to evolve, the System will continue to adjust to reflect the opinions of the student body.