Earlier this semester, I talked with our Board of Visitors and then at a Vox Alumni Live event about topics that are near and dear to many of us: the Honor Code, which prohibits lying, cheating and stealing; and the Honor System, which is the process by which Honor offenses are adjudicated and sanctioned. I know from many conversations with alumni that the Honor Code and Honor System were—and remain—among the defining features of their time at UVA and have continued to shape their lives since leaving Grounds. I also know from many conversations with students that the Honor Code remains important to them. Regardless of their views of the Honor System, including the sanctions, students I have spoken to—and I have spoken to many—deeply respect the Honor Code and appreciate what it means to live in a community of trust.
In this letter, I’d like to offer three observations. First, as most of you have probably heard, this past March, about 25 percent of the student body voted in a referendum to amend the single-sanction expulsion penalty in favor of a two-semester suspension. This referendum passed overwhelmingly, with roughly 80 percent of the votes. If I were a student, I would have voted against this change. It is not because I believe the single sanction of expulsion is sacrosanct and necessary for an effective honor system. To the contrary, I personally believe in the possibility and the power of redemption.
That said, I believe it is a mistake to replace the 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, whether students have accepted responsibility or whether they have made amends. I believe we should ask more of our students. I would prefer a system where the sanction is at least a year, and students are readmitted only if they have shown proof that they have learned from the incident and made amends. That would be a system that is both humane and educational. As it stands now, the student who accepts full responsibility before trial will be treated identically to the student who is found guilty after a trial and still refuses to take responsibility. That is inequitable, and it creates a system that is not oriented toward helping students learn from their mistakes. My hope is that these problems will be addressed by students in the future.
The second point may seem obvious, but it is still worth saying: I’m no longer a student here, which means I did not get to vote. The Honor System is, in many respects, the epitome of one of UVA’s strongest and most important traditions: student self-governance. The Honor System is run by and for our students, and they have the right to change it. The fact that they did may be worrisome to some, but accepting student self-governance means accepting that students will make some decisions that their elders would not have made.
The third and final point is to address the concern that because of this change, the Honor System is effectively dead. I disagree. To begin, the heart of the Honor System is not the sanction but the Honor Code. And the Honor System works best—and becomes a way of life—when students internalize the Honor Code. Sanctions incentivize students to pay attention to the Honor Code, but I believe that during their time on Grounds, students can and do learn to appreciate what it means to live in a community of trust, and they come to see the value of living their lives honorably.
In addition, instead of weakening the Honor System, I think it’s more likely that this change will reinvigorate it. Case numbers have dropped over time, as have guilty verdicts. Anecdotally, students report reluctance to use the Honor System or to find students guilty because they believe expulsion is too harsh a punishment for many offenses. Faculty say the same and also complain—with justification—that the process is time-consuming and burdensome. Reducing the severity of the sanction, in this context, could lead to greater enforcement of Honor offenses, especially if improvements are made to the process so that faculty are more likely to use it.
This is not the first change to the Honor System, and I hope and expect it will not be the last. But the Honor Code endures, as it should, and we will continue to do all that we can to ensure it remains a vital part of what it means to be a student at the University of Virginia.
James E. Ryan (Law ’92)
President of the University of Virginia