OPINION: The Inconvenient History of Honor

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OPINION: The Inconvenient History of Honor

It’s been a little over a week since my article “The Moral Failures of the Honor Referenda,” was published in The Cavalier Daily. In that case, my argument against the measures of the Campaign for Self-Governance was based on a series of moral principles. Today, I would like to analyze the referenda from another angle – that of the inconvenient history which contradicts the Campaign’s central claims.

First, we ought to question the historical basis that Mr. Robertson and Mr. Park have used to rationalize their proposals. In their open letter to the Student Body, they write, “Honor at Virginia has never been about the single sanction. From its beginnings, it has consisted instead in a fundamental commitment to an ideal of self-government, namely, that the honor system embodies the living values of those who are held to its standards,” (emphasis mine). This is quite significant – if the Honor System really has been about student self-governance from its inception, then the Campaign gains a lot of credibility in its effort to bring current practice more in line with that spirit.

So let’s examine the history of Honor at UVa.

The Honor Committee’s website relates that the system as a whole has its roots in the death of a professor at the hands of a rogue student. Two years after this tragedy, a prominent professor by the name of Henry St. George Tucker proposed a written honor pledge on all assignments. This alone should expose the historical irony at the heart of the Campaign’s claim that the Honor System has always been first and foremost about self-governance.

However, Coy Barefoot’s magisterial article for The University of Virginia Magazine shows just how untenable the Campaign’s claim really is. In “The Evolution of Honor,” Barefoot provides a comprehensive timeline of changes to the system up to 2008. Quite tellingly, Barefoot notes that the origins of Honor go back to a faculty resolution that predates St. George Tucker’s suggestion:

“Resolved, that the Faculty will refuse to confer a degree or to allow distinction in every case in which they shall be satisfied that the student has at any examination for such degree or distinction attempted to commit a fraud upon the Committee in any way or to any extent whatever.”

This is the birth of the single sanction. No mention is made of student self-governance. Thus, when was that policy instituted? It’s somewhat unclear, given the ad-hoc nature of 19th century Honor proceedings. The timeline posted on Honor’s website rather vaguely states the following: “The students so strongly wished to be measured by their own standards that they unexpectedly assumed responsibility for the protection of this privilege.”

Barefoot’s article provides us with a little more information. The first Honor case took place in 1851, ten years after the single sanction was formally adopted as faculty policy. It was run by an all-faculty board. It was not until 1912 that a fully student-run committee was erected. Between the two dates, the record is obscure. But regardless, this would appear to be the true and formal beginning of student self-governance in honor. So, the single sanction is far older and far more basic to the honor system than student self-governance as such.

There are other historical claims made by the Campaign for Self-Governance. The date 2004 figures prominently in their propaganda. Messrs. Robertson and Park write, “In 2004, 59% of the student body voted in favor of a non-binding resolution asking the Honor Committee to explore a multi-sanction system. Eleven years have passed, and the Committee has not offered a single alternative to the current system.”

This would be a credible problem if it didn’t ignore both the activities of the Honor Committee and other groups. In Fall of 2004, Honor erected an ad-hoc committee known as the Sanction Reform Committee–it was soon followed by Honor’s ad-hoc Committee for the Investigation of the Single Sanction, and both were intended to evaluate the single sanction and research possible alternatives. But Robertson and Park fail to mention this response. Instead, they rest their advocacy for “self-governance” on the dubious point that “the Committee has not offered a single alternative to the current system.” The reason the Committee has not done so is because a student group from outside the Committee, Hoos Against Single Sanction, initiated action instead. In fact, they did so twice, in 2007 and 2009. Their efforts failed both times, and by a massive margin in the latter case. In view of all this, it is strange to act as if there’s been no discussion of this issue – and specifically no work by the Honor Committee itself. The Committee did major research into this issue, but student initiative brought referenda first.

There is another issue with the Campaign’s grasp of history. It seems to have curiously short memory. In only 2013, the Student Body approved the Informed Retraction. This policy, so recently introduced to the operation of the Honor Committee, will require time for testing. Changing Honor’s practice so soon after its implementation is imprudent and potentially destabilizing. At the very least, it will be disorienting to the Honor Committee Members and Support Officers who have to execute these procedures.

Finally, the Campaign for Self-Governance uses history selectively. We ought to ask them why. If, as they are so ready to claim, “the issue at hand has nothing to do with the difference between the single- and the multi-sanction system,” then why is it the history page on their website only deals with challenges to the single sanction? This alone should give us proof of their disingenuous rhetoric. Surely a campaign centered on self-governance could have included other issues, such as jury reform or attempts at increased transparency. But upon closer scrutiny, it becomes clear how narrow their presentation of Honor history really is. The Campaign’s timeline conveniently starts in 1966, over a hundred years after the beginning of the Honor System. Similarly, it ends in 2009, allowing them to skirt the issue of Informed Retraction altogether. And in between those dates, events that preserved the single sanction are treated as set-backs (I refer you to their entry on the 1972 referendum).

No doubt we will hear and read more discussion of this issue in the next week and a half. But through all the rhetoric, let’s bear in mind the vital importance of comprehensive, honest, and, indeed, inconvenient history.

By Rick Yoder
Rick is a second year in the College of Arts and Sciences.


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Comments (1)

  • Vote No

    It is worth noting that the Honor Committee seriously considered a multiple sanction system as recently as 2012/2013 before deciding to proceed with the Informed Retraction/Jury Reform combo, of which the IR was accepted by the student body. Additionally, public forums and assemblies, which the Committee hosts every year, are poorly attended, so there the expectation that these proposed assemblies would impact the system is misplaced. The history of the honor system does not actually fit the narrative of this “campaign for self governance.”

    Feb 16, 2015

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