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Students mull honor system reforms, fate of single sanction

By Dan Heuchert

For Hunter O. Ferguson, chairing the Honor Committee is a crusade born of a real passion.

It's also a crusade that seems to be under siege at times.

"I 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.

The inscription on this University gate, an illustration used on the new Honor Committee web page, states:

"It's 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.

Closer 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 results.

The 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.

The 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.

While 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.

"Once a case is initiated, once it enters the system, I feel confident in saying that the honor system is fair," he said.

The Honor Committee also heard reports Oct. 10 from four subcommittees charged with examining various aspects of the system, concluding a year of self-examination.

The 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.

However, 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.

"We didn't want to give the impression that change was imminent, or that the subcommittees represented the opinions of the whole committee," he said.

The single sanction has received anecdotal support from alumni, the subcommittee reported, but faculty members were less supportive; 63 percent favored a multiple-sanction system.

Another 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.

Board 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.

Another 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.

The 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."

Faculty support honor system, but quibble with the details


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