Students at the University of Virginia voted overwhelmingly last week to stop expelling students for honor code violations, reversing a policy known as the “single sanction” that has been in place for 180 years.
The decision came after student elections closed on Friday afternoon after a three-day vote by students on a proposal to change the UVa Honor Committee Constitution that stated the committee would “exclude permanently from student status university students found to have committed honor violations.”
The new language will “exclude for two full semesters from student status university students found to have committed an honor violation.”
“This vote is truly historic and shows that together, anything is possible,” said third-year law student Christopher Benos, who drafted told change. Benos, who serves on the Honor Committee, made his comment to the UVa newspaper, The Cavalier Daily.
The new punishment represents “the largest change ever made to the Honor system” according to the student paper.
For the past 180 years, if a UVA student was found guilty of lying, cheating or stealing, there was only one punishment, expelling the student. The origin of the policy dates back to 1842, according to university’s honor code website. The first expulsion for a violation occurred in 1851.
Doubts about the single sanction arose in 1972, when students voted in a referendum two-to-one to keep the punishment. Between 1972 and 2013, students voted on referenda regarding the punishment 12 times.
To pass, at least 10% of the total student body had to vote in the elections. Of that student vote, at least 605 of ballots had to be in favor of a change.
In 2013, students passed the “informed retraction,” in which a student can admit guilt before a trial occurs and return to the university after a two-semester suspension. In 2016, a vote to change the single sanction received 59% approval, one percent short of passing.
Last week more than 6,000 students voted on the proposal, about 23.75% of the student body. Of those, about 80% voted for the change.
A Washington Post article in 1999 reported that Black, Asian and Latino students were expelled at a disproportionate rate to white students. In 1987, Black students were accused of violating the honor code at a rate three times their representation on campus.
The severity of the prior punishment deterred students from reporting each other, Benos told the student paper.
Support for the honor system has flagged over the past 50 years, according a poll conducted by the school’s alumni association. In the Class of 1970, 96% of graduates reported remembering the honor system favorably. For the Class of 2020, only half felt the same way.
Two existing exceptions to the single-sanction rule are not affected by the vote. Students may still make conscientious retractions and informed retractions. A conscientious retraction can be made by a student who admits an offense prior to accusation and therefore does face expulsion.
An informed retraction can be made by accused students who take responsibility for an offense before the case proceeds to a hearing. They also face a two-semester suspension.
UVa administrators and the Board of Visitors neither supported nor opposed the amendment, although they encouraged students to vote and debate.
Honor Committee Chair Andy Chambers told the school publication UVa Today that the Honor Committee will work on questions and inconsistencies raised by the vote.
Daily Progress staff contributed to this article