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'It's collapsing and becoming meaningless': Changes to UVa honor system divides alumni

The University of Virginia’s honor system recently underwent transformative changes, and it’s stirring debate — off Grounds.

Students at the university are now offered a variety of disciplinary actions in a major shift from the 181-year-old, single-sanction, expulsion-only system.

And while current students are by and large on board — after all it was a change spearheaded by student-run groups — alumni are divided. Some are embracing the change, while others say it is an affront to the honor the system was created to protect.

“Our concern is that it has changed way too much, and it’s collapsing and becoming meaningless,” James A. Bacon, executive director of the conservative alumni group the Jefferson Council, told The Daily Progress.

The honor system exists to foster UVa’s community of trust and to hold UVa “to the highest standards of integrity,” according to the school itself.

Students found guilty of lying, cheating or stealing were, once upon a time, punished by a single sanction of expulsion under the previous honor system.

The new system still considers honor offenses the same as the previous system, but now students who have committed an offense will be given consequences that are “proportional to the offense and consider the circumstances of the student,” according to the Honor Committee.

“Before the multi-sanction system, the students had made a change that basically eliminated the sanction of expulsion and kind of replaced it with the single sanction of the two semesters suspension,” Kennon Poteat, UVa alumnus, told The Daily Progress. “They had the automatic right to return to the university after that, and I think a lot of people in the UVa community had concerns about that change. But then a year later, students made another change to it that created the multisanctioning system that restored the sanction of expulsion, but then created others so that a sanction could be handed down depending on the severity of the offense. And to me that makes much more sense than the change that had previously been made.”

Poteat graduated from the McIntire School of Commerce in 2001. He also has firsthand knowledge of what goes into judging honor system offenders.

“I served on the Honor Committee back in fall 2000 through spring 2001, and I was the vice chair for trial at that time, the person on the committee responsible for the various honor trials,” Poteat said.

The system worked while Poteat was attending UVa, he said.

“You could step away from your table at the library and you could trust that when you got back your stuff would be there when you returned,” Poteat said. “For the faculty, when I was there, professors would trust students to complete exams away from the classroom, which gave students flexibility and the ability to take an exam some place more comfortable than in a classroom with a bunch of other students.”

In other words, “you could see the system working,” he said.

The new honor system has four categories of sanctions: amends, education, temporary removal and permanent removal.

“Our feeling is it just kind of breaking down under its own weight,” Bacon said. “Most of us would like to see a return to something like when we were here, when it was simple.”

Bacon said expulsion was a sanction to be feared, and with good reason.

“The terms were harsh if you violated the honor code, but we preserved the integrity of what people now call the community of trust,” he said.

But other alumni feel that fellow graduates really shouldn’t have that much of a role in dictating how current students are governed.

“From my perspective, the most important aspect is that the honor system is backed by the current generation of students,” said Thomas Hall, who graduated from UVa in 2002 after serving as the first-ever two-time chair of the Honor Committee. “The honor system needs to be something that is governed by the students and endorsed by the current generation of students for it to be successful.”

In many ways, Hall’s words echo those of Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father of both the country and UVa.

In a 1789 letter to friend and fellow Founding Father James Madison, Jefferson wrote a sort of treatise on generational sovereignty, claiming “The earth belongs … to the living: that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.”

Jefferson even toyed with the idea that the Constitution should expire every 19 years, saying that otherwise it could become “an act of force and not of right.”

Bacon, who leads a group that “works to uphold the Jeffersonian legacy,” doesn’t necessarily see it that way.

Current students should control the honor system, Bacon said, but there are just some things that are eternal and unchanging.

“We would love to be able to engage students in that kind of conversation and say, ‘Look this is the way it was when we were here,’” Bacon said. “We would like to be able to make the argument for maintaining the more traditional way of doing things. So yeah, let the students control it obviously and recognize that times do change, but at the same time, recognize that there’s also such things as eternal verities and eternal truths, and try to have that conversation.”

The new multisanction honor system went into effect July 1. About 14 cases have resumed since then, according to Hamza Aziz, sitting chair of the Honor Committee.

“I want to say 14 cases were resumed, so that means there were 14 cases that were on hold between the March referendum dates and the system in action,” Aziz told The Daily Progress. “Some of them went into their IR [informed retraction] periods, some of them filed an IR, others waived their IR, and the investigation process is ongoing and we’ve adjudicated since then like two or three cases since case-processing resumed.”


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