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New Honor code restores expulsion

UVA Honor System graphic
Xander Houff

In a stunning reversal from the year before, student voters have restored the University of Virginia Honor Committee’s power to expel offenders.

The move is part of a wide-ranging reworking of the Honor constitution, a framework that now includes multiple sanctions, something successive generations of Honor reformers have championed for more than 50 years.

Across three days of voting that ended March 2, students ushered in a new Honor constitution with 89 percent support amid 24 percent voter turnout, both figures well above threshold requirements.

The vote matched last year’s participation level and marked an even bigger landslide. Voters supported reform nearly 8-to-1, versus 4-to-1 last year, when 80 percent opted to repeal expulsion.

“I was floored,” said Honor chair and reform leader Gabrielle Bray (Col ’23) two hours after the polls closed. “I’m still in shock.”

As dramatic was the year-over-year change in atmosphere. Last year’s ballot proposition represented a protest vote, not an affirmation of solutions, both Bray and University Board of Elections Chair Luke Lamberson (Col ’24) agreed. It ended expulsions through the change of a single phrase, only to create a new set of operational problems in its aftermath. (For Virginia Magazine’s in-depth look at the Honor System, read our Summer/Fall cover story, “Honor Up Close.”) The 2022 measure had reached the ballot through a contentious process, bypassing a riven and deadlocked Honor Committee with an acrimony that carried through to the referendum campaign.

By contrast, this year’s referendum knitted together 27 different constitutional revisions. Winning approval was a case study in consensus building, including holding a self-styled constitutional convention that engaged a vast constellation of student groups. The measure reached the ballot through the more harmonious means of Honor Committee accord and went on to win the endorsement of one of the Honor System’s most skeptical and abiding critics, the Cavalier Daily.

A decisive factor in the victory was that lack of any organized opposition. There was “nobody campaigning against it,” Lamberson pointed out.

“This current committee watched what happened last year, and did not want to repeat history,” Bray said. “I’m not comfortable taking credit for keeping [the] Committee on track and maintaining consensus when I think it was this broad understanding that we had to be better than the year before.”

Among the major changes, the new constitution:

  • Codifies multiple sanctions. The Honor Committee gains broad discretion in fashioning penalties, starting with rehabilitative education and having offenders make amends, escalating to temporary or permanent removal from the University community.
  • Tightens jury composition. An accused student can no longer opt to have a jury composed entirely of randomly selected peers adjudicate one’s case. A hybrid of seven randomly selected students and five Honor Committee representatives will be empaneled instead, with conviction requiring nine votes.
  • Separates sentencing from conviction. If a jury votes to convict, the proceedings move to a separate sentencing phase. It falls to the five Honor representatives on the jury to determine punishment, but with an important check on their ability to expel a student. For a first-time offender, the Honor Committee members need the consent of at least three of the lay jurors from the guilt phase to mete out the System’s maximum penalty.
  • Restores and expands opportunities to admit guilt. By removing the threat of expulsion, last year’s amendment negated the chief incentive for confessing and avoiding the risk of a conviction in an Honor hearing. The new system of tougher sanctions and greater jury oversight would seem to correct that. The new constitution goes on to expand the timeframe in which the Honor Committee will accept confessions in exchange for lesser penalties.
Richard Gard is editor of Virginia Magazine.