Students mull honor
system reforms, fate of single sanction
Hunter O. Ferguson, chairing the Honor
Committee is a crusade born of a real passion.
also a crusade that seems to be under siege at times.
think the mission of the honor system is to try to create a culture
and an ideal here," he told the Board
of Visitors Oct. 15, with emotion unusual for their roceedings.
"And I think lately it has been under pressure and asault.
inscription on this University gate, an illustration used
on the new Honor Committee web page, states:
BY THIS GATEWAY
THE WAY OF HONOR,
THE LIGHT OF TRUTH,
THE WILL TO WORK FOR MEN.
not just worth protecting, but it's worth strengthening,"
he continued. "It's worth giving all we have to it."
The system has been under fire from many quarters. It endured
an investigation from the federal Department of Education's Office
of Civil Rights, which found no basis for allegations that it
was unfairly biased against minorities. That report came out over
the summer; just a few weeks later, the Washington Post ran a
long feature repeating many of the same charges.
to home, the Board of Visitors has questioned the system's vulnerability
to litigation and has pressured the committee to make changes
in how it operates. Faculty, too, have concerns with how the system
has run, opposing the single sanction in a survey taken in the
spring and reporting dissatisfaction with trial procedures and
student-run Honor Committee recently wrapped up a self-study,
which Ferguson presented to the board, and will likely take up
specific proposals for reform in the coming weeks. Whether those
proposals will include a measure to modify the system's single
sanction, which prescribes only expulsion for students found guilty
of an honor offense, is unclear.
committee is taking action aimed at increasing minority participation
and lessening the perception that the system is unfair to minorities.
It appointed a diversity awareness subcommittee Oct. 10, which
will attempt to recruit minority students to serve in some of
the approximately 200 honor support positions. That pool often
generates candidates for the 21 Honor Committee positions, which
are elected by the student body.
he acknowledged that minorities may be accused of offenses at
a disproportionate rate, Ferguson suggested that much of that
is because of "spotlighting" -- the tendency of minorities
to stand out in a majority-dominated crowd, and not because of
any bias in the Honor Committee itself.
a case is initiated, once it enters the system, I feel confident
in saying that the honor system is fair," he said.
Honor Committee also heard reports Oct. 10 from four subcommittees
charged with examining various aspects of the system, concluding
a year of self-examination.
subcommittee that looked into the single sanction reported that
it "finds no compelling reason to reevaluate the single sanction
further at this time," and referred to a 1994 student referendum
in which 60 percent of voting students supported the current sanction,
which has never been modified. "There is currently no impetus
among either the Honor Committee or the student body to change
this facet of the honor system,² the subcommittee report asserts.
some sentiment to revisit the sanction remains among the Honor
Committee as a whole, Ferguson said. The reports from the four
subcommittees were meant to be informative in nature, he said.
didn't want to give the impression that change was imminent, or
that the subcommittees represented the opinions of the whole committee,"
single sanction has received anecdotal support from alumni, the
subcommittee reported, but faculty members were less supportive;
63 percent favored a multiple-sanction system.
point of contention is the composition of the juries in honor
trials. Since 1990, accused students have had the option of having
their cases heard either by random student juries, by Honor Committee
members, or by panels containing elements of both.
member Terence P. Ross of Alexandria recommended in a Jan. 19
memo that the Honor Committee seek to eliminate the random student
jury option and hear all of the cases itself, with the aim of
making verdicts more consistent and thus more legally defensible.
The subcommittee looking into trial panel composition, however,
said students are unlikely to vote for such a change. The random
student jury proposal won 70 percent support in the 1990 vote,
and students appear suspicious of a secret system in which Honor
Committee members serve as both judge and jury.
Board members also recommended that the committee consider an
outside review board to hear appeals, in order to avoid reviewing
its own work. The subcommittee looking into the appeals process
rejected the idea as "completely detrimental² to the principle
of student self-governance, but recommended procedural changes
to insulate the Honor Committee's Vice President for Trials from
having to determine the validity of appeals. The changes were
approved Oct. 3.
subcommittee reported on the scope of the honor system, which
currently is binding to students only in Charlottesville, Albemarle
County, or anywhere students present themselves as U.Va. students.
That raises questions about how it applies to Continuing Education
students taking courses in satellite locations.
"For example, a student stealing from Wal-Mart in Charlottesville
would be within scope, but a student at one of the regional centers
stealing from the local Wal-Mart would not be in scope,"
the report noted. However, expanding the system's reach presents
major logistical obstacles, the report found.
same subcommittee also took up the issue of who should be eligible
to initiate honor charges, and again clashed with faculty opinion.
In the spring survey, only 33 percent of faculty favored "non-U.Va.
community members" bringing charges, but the subcommittee
concluded, "We do not find compelling evidence to exclude
members of the local community as initiators."
support honor system, but quibble with the details