Transcribed below is a speech from Evan Berhle, a previous Chair of the Honor Committee, to the Class of 2017 at the University of Virginia. Evan gave a passionate defense of the Honor system, and in retrospect, offers some insights to the Single Sanction dilemma facing the University today. The speech is his own–but the lessons are yours to choose.
Good evening. My name is Evan Behrle, and I am the Chair of the University’s Honor Committee. Tradition dictates that before the introduction of our keynote speaker, and the signing of the Honor pledge, I spend a few minutes addressing the same thing that you and I already talked about down in Old Cabell Hall during your summer orientation sessions: the meaning of the Honor system.
To begin, I need your help. I need everyone, right now, to stand up.
I am about to ask you to do something weird. But I am going to ask you to do it on your Honor as a UVa student. If you have, at any point in your life, ever stolen, ever cheated, or ever told a lie, I want you to sit back down.
[Everyone but two sit down]
So except for those two guys, we have a problem. The Honor system envisions a community in which no one ever lies, cheats, or steals; a community in which everyone is honest in all that they do; a community in which adherence of a single principle, the principle of integrity, is nothing short of perfect. And that is why if a student at our University is ever found guilty of trial of lying, cheating, or stealing, there is only one sanction: permanent dismissal from the University of Virginia.
AND SO CYNICS MIGHT LOOK AT OUR LITTLE DEMONSTRATION AND SAY “THIS IS WHY YOUR HONOR SYSTEM IS A FOOL’S ERRAND. THIS IS WHY THE COMMUNITY IT ENVISIONS WILL NEVER BE MORE THAN A DREAM.”
You can’t foster a sense of community in a school of 20,000 students, they say, because it is just too big. You can’t foster a sense of empathy in the members of your generation, they say, because you are all just too self-centered. You can’t foster a sense of Honor in a group of college students, they say, because college is about getting ahead, no matter what they cost.
They point to the cheating scandal at Harvard, the corruption on Wall Street, the dysfunction in Washington, and they say, at the end of it all, this is just the time we live in, and there is nothing you can do about it.
I DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HARVARD, OR WALL STREET, OR WASHINGTON. BUT I KNOW THIS PLACE. AND HERE, AT THIS UNIVERSITY, WE DO NOT BOW TO THE COWARDICE OF CYNICISM. WE UNDERSTAND THAT THE CRISIS OF OUR CULTURE IS NOT WHAT MAKES OUR CULTURE TRYING TO LIVE WITH HONOR FUTILE—IT IS WHAT MAKES IT IMPORTANT.
WE SHOULD SEE OUR DEMONSTRATION, OUR ADMISSION OF HAVING MADE MISTAKES, NOT AS THE REASON WE CANNOT REACH FULL PERFECTION, BUT AS THE REASON WE MUST, AS THE REASON WE DO. WE REACH FOR PERFECTION BECAUSE WE ARE IMPERFECT.
Now most of you can’t see, but the rocking chairs outside the Lawn rooms are locked up. The chairs at the physical center of the Community of Trust are strapped to door hinges with bicycle locks. Someone asked me about this once. I was trying out for the University Guides Service, and in my interview, one of the UGuides asked what I thought the locks on the doors said about our Honor system. I said what pretty much everyone else trying out said: the chairs are locked because the Grounds are open to the public.
A few months later, the Chair of the Guides Service, a guy named Jeff Webb, explained that even if I had been right, I had missed the point entirely. The point, he said, was that the Honor system is an aspiration. It represents the pursuit of an ideal that we will forever fail to achieve. Some of us will always lie, or cheat, or steal.
BUT TO STRIVE IN THE FACE OF THIS FAILURE, TO REFUSE TO ABANDON AN IDEAL EVEN IF WE KNOW IT WILL ALWAYS ELUDE US—THAT IS OUR CHARGE. THAT IS WHAT EACH GENERATION OF STUDENTS WHO HAS SAT WHERE YOU SIT NOW HAS CHALLENGED US TO DO. AND THE CHALLENGE IS HARD.
BUT IF WE AREN’T WILLING TO TRY, IF WE AREN’T WILLING TO TAKE UP THE MANTLE OF AN HONOR SYSTEM THAT HAS BEEN THE MOST IMPORTANT TRADITION AT THE UNIVERSITY FOR 172 YEARS, THEN MAYBE WE DON’T DESERVE THIS PLACE.
Last spring, though, I think we did meet that challenge. In a University-wide vote, we made the biggest change to the Honor system in a generation, a change born of this idea that we should strive for integrity even in the wake of failure. The change is called the Informed Retraction, and here’s how it works.
When we receive a report of a possible Honor offense, we take that report to the student in question, and the student then has 7 days, one week, during which he can own up to his mistake. And once he has made amends with everyone affected by his actions and collected their signatures, his Informed Retraction is considered official, and he finishes out his current semester before taking two full semesters off. After those two semesters, he returns to the University, and recommits himself to our Community of Trust.
The Informed Retraction meets the challenge of the students who have come before us, because it recognizes that getting up after you have fallen might just be more important than not falling down in the first place.
THE INFORMED RETRACTION TEACHES US THAT THE HONOR SYSTEM IS NOT ABOUT PUNISHMENT—IT IS ABOUT TRUSTING ONE ANOTHER EVEN WHEN WE HAVE REASON NOT TO, EVEN WHEN WE HAVE SEEN, JUST NOW, THAT EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US HAS MADE MISTAKES.
When it’s all said and done, that is the choice you have to make—to trust or not. And it’s a choice you have to make before you sign the Honor scrolls. It’s a choice you have to make right now.
And so I’m going to do one more weird thing. I am going to ask if you are willing to trust, if you are willing to believe in Honor and all it can be—stand up. Now turn to someone whom you haven’t met and shake their hand.
We are the University of Virginia. We are a family. The person you just met is not a stranger, is not even a friend. The person you just met is your brother, or your sister. Never forget that.