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. These changes occurred during the second half of the twentieth century and the early 2000′s.
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.
In April of 2001, case management became a major issue for the Honor System when Professor Louis Bloomfield brought to the Honor Committee a total of 122 cases of alleged plagiarism, a number that would later balloon to nearly 160. Using a sophisticated computer program he wrote himself, Professor Bloomfield analyzed a database of five semesters worth of papers. He identified pairs of papers that had words in common, too many to be regarded as mere coincidence. The Honor Committee had never before seen such a massive influx of cases, and quickly responded in creative ways to process the unprecedented number of initiations. Advisors were assigned to all the investigated students. Teams of Counsel were assigned to the “high-priority” cases first: students who were scheduled to graduate the next month and students connected to those cases. A designated Investigation Coordinator was assigned to coordinate the investigations. The cases resulted in 20 guilty verdicts at trial and 28 students leaving the University admitting guilt.
Also in 2001, a movement emerged within the Committee to address perceived problems with the single sanction. Committee members suggested two competing proposals: one allowing dismissed students to apply for readmission, and another establishing what was called an “informed retraction.” The proposal essentially functioned as a plea bargain, allowing students who had a case initiated against them to opt for a three-semester suspension instead of proceeding to trial. The Honor Committee narrowly rejected the proposal, ultimately falling two votes short of the required two-thirds that would have sent the matter to a student referendum. However, informed retraction supporters garnered close to 2000 signatures to place the proposal on the spring 2002 ballot. The student body rejected the informed retraction proposal: 2,223 students voted for the proposal, while 3,346 voted against.
Two referenda appeared on the Spring 2005 ballot, both dealing with the single sanction. The first referendum asked the question, “Should the Honor Committee continue to seek alternatives to the single sanction?” 59% of students voting responded yes while 41% of those voting responded no. The second referendum, known as the “Consensus Clause,” would have forced any change to the single sanction to be approved by a “simple majority of the student body.” Requiring a 3/5ths majority to pass, the amendment failed narrowly with 59.5% of students voting in favor of the amendment and 40.5% of students voting opposed.
In Spring 2006, the student group Hoos Against Single Sanction developed and proposed an alternative to the sanction whereby juries would have the responsibility for determining an appropriate sanction for students found guilty of act and intent at trial. The proposal was placed on the spring ballot as an opinion poll that, if passed, would serve as a mandate for the Honor Committee to present that or a similar binding sanction alternative in the Spring 2007 elections. It failed by 62 votes (49.5% to 50.5%). In another spring ballot initiative, the Committee received a proposal to add two Committee members from the College of Arts and Sciences. Increased ability to reach the student body and to distribute the workload of the current three CLAS representatives motivated the Committee to endorse the proposal as a binding referendum on the spring ballot. It passed (73% to 26%) and the Committee expanded to 25 members at the beginning of the 2007-2008 term.
"Restore the Ideal" and Aftermath
The 2012-2013 Honor Committee undertook a major reform proposal beginning in October of their term. This proposal combined two different reforms that had been discussed and debated over the course of several decades by past Committees. Essentially, the reform package, titled the Restore the Ideal Act, sought to combine an Informed Retraction option with substantial jury panel reform.
The Informed Retraction aimed to encourage honorable behavior within the Honor System by providing an opportunity for students to come forward in admission of guilt after they are made aware that an Honor report has been made against them, thereby building upon the System’s existing Conscientious Retraction policy. The Committee believed that this opportunity would encourage honorable behavior within the Honor process by providing a strong incentive for honesty, in contrast to the existing problem of incentivizing lying through trial. It allowed a student to take responsibility for his or her actions by immediately admitting to the act, making amends to the Community of Trust by leaving for two full academic semesters, and then returning and recommitting to our Community. At the same time, this extended opportunity protects the System’s single sanction policy of having only one consequence for those students found guilty of committing an Honor Offense at trial.
The second component of the proposal sought to improve trial proceedings by eliminating an accused student’s option for random-student juries and return to a jury comprised of Honor Committee student representatives. With this change, the Committee felt that students would be empowered to elect those of their peers who would serve as jurors in an Honor trial and allow these jurors to accumulate the experience necessary to deliver consistent verdicts from trial to trial. Moreover, this jury panel would be identical in format to that used by the University Judiciary Committee and is the same panel that had been used by the Honor Committee for over a century.
This proposal was put to a vote of the student body (as ratification by the student body was required to alter the portion of the Constitution to change jury composition) during the University-wide elections from February 25-February 28, 2013. A second-year Law student also put forward a proposed amendment to the Honor Constitution by gathering signatures from 10% of the student body. His amendment sought to allow students to vote on the inclusion of an Informed Retraction policy without linking this reform to the Jury Reform proposal. For an amendment to the Honor Committee’s Constitution to be ratified, three-fifths of those voting in the election must vote in favor of the amendment, with 10% of the entire eligible study body voting in favor of the amendment. The Restore the Ideal Act did not pass the student body, having only received 40.6% of votes in favor. The Informed Retraction amendment did pass the student body, having received 64% of the votes in favor. On March 3, 2013, the Honor Committee passed interim by-laws to provide guidance for implementing the Informed Retraction, as ratified by the student body, with the expectation that the incoming Committee would work with the outgoing Committee on a more permanent set of by-laws addressing the Informed Retraction.
In the spring of 2015, two Honor support officers put three referenda on the ballot—two constitutional amendments, and one non-binding question of student opinion. The first constitutional amendment required the Honor Committee to convene a bi-annual assembly open to the entire student body to gauge student opinion and feedback on the Honor System. The second constitutional amendment stated that if a non-binding question of student opinion concerning the Honor System was passed with a majority vote, the Honor Committee would be required to put that same question to the student body as a constitutional amendment the following year. The third referendum was a non-binding question of student opinion that asked the following: “Should the Honor Committee consider implementing a multiple sanction system?” The first referendum passed with 84%, and the second referendum passed with 64%—both surpassing the 60% threshold for amendments to the constitution. The third referendum passed with 51% of the student body voting in favor. The result of the passage of the second and third referenda was that the Honor Committee will be required in the spring 2016 elections to put a multiple-sanction system on the ballot as a constitutional amendment.
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.