University of Virginia students’ vote to ditch a long tradition of immediate expulsion for violators of its Honor Code is a change supporters say proves the once-staid institution continues to change for the better but others say trashes a deeply held core value.
“If you take [the Honor System] away from us, UVa is just a pile of red brick in Charlottesville,” said Bert Ellis, who graduated from UVa in 1975 and is the CEO of Ellis Capital. “It’s very nice, but it’s not anywhere near as distinctive as it was.”
Ellis is the co-founder and president of the Jefferson Council, an UVa alumni group created to promote an academic environment based on open dialogue throughout the university and to preserve the Honor System, among other goals.
For a university that prides itself on heritage and honor almost as much as academics and research, ending expulsion for honor offenses is another example of the school relinquishing meaningful traditions for some alumni.
The conversation mirrors even larger societal discussions on crime, punishment and restoration as well as how to repair the damages of slavery and structural injustices.
In recent years, the university faced uncomfortable truths about its revered founder, Thomas Jefferson; racial inequities on Grounds; the historic role of slavery at the school; and the university’s actions following the end of the Civil War, Jim Crow-era segregation and the Civil Rights movement.
In just the past few years, building and school names have been changed. Statues and memorials have been removed. A Memorial to Enslaved Laborers was installed on campus in an effort to acknowledge men and women who helped build the university but could never attend it.
Many students saw changing the Honor Code as part of a move toward justice for all students.
“It was intended to take away what we perceived as the most difficult and destructive element of the system so that future students can inherit a system that actually fosters learning, integrity, and ultimately preparation for civic service and civic involvement,” said third-year law student Christopher Benos, a member of the Honor Committee. “We’re supposed to be teaching them so they can be productive members of society.”
Ending expulsion carries symbolic weight in a university community that has prided itself on the Honor Code and a community of trust. UVa’s academic death penalty for honor code violations set it apart from other universities.
“There have been efforts over the years to bring change to the honor system because it really represents a core element of the university brand,” Benos said. “That’s why it was so difficult to change.”
On whose honorThe code calls for expulsion if a student is found guilty of cheating, lying or stealing. In the 1950s, there was even a Bad Check Committee formed to keep trust between students and the community at large.
The first expulsion for a violation was in 1851. Although traditionally run by a small committee of students or even the entire student body – rules changed over time – the current system was established in 1977 when Student Council approved a constitution for the Honor Committee to follow.
While the single sanction is steeped in tradition, support for it has been waning among alumni and students in recent decades. Some see it as draconian, and others think it leads to under-reporting of cheating.
The recent election is not the first time students voted on dropping expulsion. In 2013, students approved informed retraction, which provided a lesser one-year sanction to students who admitted guilt after being accused.
In 2016, abolishing expulsion failed by 1 percent of votes cast.
The debate fomented. Last fall, the honor committee began debating the issue and expulsion was once again put to a vote.
About 24% of the study body turned out, which is higher than recent elections. Nearly 80% of students voted to upend the system.
The change took immediate effect and the Honor Committee paused all hearings until its bylaws are amended to address the change.
Under the new rules, students will face a one-year suspension if they are found guilty, the same penalty currently for those who admit guilt.
Trust or consequences
Supporters say ending expulsion makes the code more restorative than punitive. Critics say it moves the university away from a “community of trust.”
“Absolute honor is not something that the students and the faculty and the administration want to stand up for,” Ellis said. “And that’s a real shame. It was a huge distinction, a badge that every graduate was very proud of, until recently.”
Ellis said he faults the university administration with not making sure that incoming students understood the importance of that community and the overall Honor System.
President Jim Ryan told the Board of Visitors earlier this month that he wouldn’t have voted for the measure if he were a student.
“I believe it’s a mistake to replace a single sanction of expulsion with a single sanction of suspension that carries with it an automatic right of readmission regardless of the severity of the offense or whether students have accepted responsibility or whether they’ve made amends,” Ryan said at a March 16 alumni panel. “I believe we should ask more of our students.”
Ryan said he preferred a system in which readmission is allowed only if students can show they’ve learned from the incident or made amends.
Ryan said the Honor System is the epitome of the tradition of student self-governance and that the change may invigorate the system.
“The fact that they did [change] may be worrisome to some, but accepting student self-governance means accepting that students will sometimes make decisions that their elders would not have made,” he said.
More than “rich, white dudes”
Not all members of the Honor Committee supported the switch. Andy Chambers, a fourth-year student in the College of Arts and Sciences and Honor Committee chairman, opposed the changes.
“This is going to do more harm than it’s going to do good, and maybe in the best case scenario, it is true neutral,” Chambers said, adding that the change is “another nail in the coffin” for the Honor System.
He agrees that the Honor System is in need of reform. Juries sometimes find peers not guilty because of the harsh consequence and faculty members sometimes do not report honor offenses because of the time-intensive process, he said.
So far this calendar year, the Honor Committee has received zero reports, he said.
Some of the problems could be remedied if the university developed new ways to gain student buy-in for the honor system, Chambers said.
“When you’re selling this to a population of rich white dudes from the South, it’s pretty straightforward and worked pretty well,” he said. “But the student body is just way too diverse to sell the same old messaging anymore.”
Chambers said he spent the 2021 summer getting administrators and alumni on board with a multi-sanction system. His fellow committee members didn’t go for it, however, and the referendum push continued.
Before the vote, alumni were “calling me all the time” asking about the expulsion provision, how it could be stopped and what he was doing about it.
Chambers said he also felt pressure from some administrators to do his best to ensure the measure’s defeat.
Big change for a small few
The vote may upend a long-cherished notion of trust but the daily impacts of the change are minor. Ending expulsion affects a small percentage of students.
According to the Cavalier Daily, 1,104 students were expelled by the Honor Committee from 1919 to 2014. Only five were found guilty from 2017 to 2020, according to committee data.
Historically, Asian students have been disproportionately affected by the system, regularly making up about 20% of reports to the committee over the last four school years while comprising on 13% of students.
The biggest effect may be on alumni, many of whom are big donors and who value the UVa tradition they say sets the institution apart from others.
Benos, an undergraduate alumnus, believes students chose a new tradition that better serves students. He is proud of the vote and the committee’s work to make what he sees as positive change.
“UVa has gone through a reckoning in the past decade, a reckoning about race, a reckoning about inequity, a reckoning about affordability, and ultimately a reckoning about what we want our university to look like moving forward,” Benos said.
But as Chambers prepares to graduate, he said he’s not at all proud of the state of the Honor System or a lot of things about UVa. In protest of the vote, he locked up the rocking chair outside his Lawn room, symbolically preventing the honor crime of theft.
“Clearly 80% people thought they were close enough to an honor offense that they would want a lesser sanction for it,” he said.