A culture of honor

My brother Sam, an opinions editor for The Record, recently brought it to my attention that his school, like mine, is beginning to have a necessary conversation about its honor system.  I am a second-year student at the University of Virginia (UVA), and after spending a semester contemplating the state of our own system and incessantly calling my brother to vent my frustrations over the problems with honor at UVA, he asked me to write a piece about how Williams might be able to deal with its own recent spate of academic dishonesty, in the context of how UVA has been responding. To provide some context, I am an Honor Advisor within the system at UVA. My role is to be a confidential confidant who both advises and provides emotional support to reported students as they go through the long, stressful ordeal of an honor case.

I have honor on the mind more than usual because last weekend a university-wide referendum to reform certain aspects of the honor system failed ratification. I was frustrated by the outcome, but I’d like to avoid a discussion of our system’s deficiencies and focus on how honor at UVA might be relevant to the issues facing Williams. The point of this op-ed is not to tell Williams what kind of honor system is best for it. We prize student self-governance here at the University, and the honor system is the school’s purest example of this as it is managed, administered and perpetuated solely by students. Thus, I firmly believe that every school’s honor code should be in the hands of its students. I simply hope to offer an outside perspective that might help fuel productive conversation about the state of honor at Williams.

We value the honor system here at UVA because it affords us numerous benefits. From unproctored exams to I.O.U.s at local shops and restaurants, the honor code fosters a community of trust between students, faculty and locals in Charlottesville, Va. And the data says it works. In a 2012 university-wide survey, just 5 percent of students reported having committed an honor offense, which we define as an act of lying, cheating or stealing. Comparatively, some studies indicate that between 40 percent and 90 percent of college students nationwide admit to cheating on at least one exam. The addition of lying and stealing would no doubt increase this already startling figure. James Elish ’13, student chair of the Honor and Discipline Committee at Williams, estimates in his Feb. 6 op-ed in the Record titled “Honor in name only” that, while 3 percent of Williams students will be convicted of an Honor violation, four times as many infractions go unnoticed.

I have a few theories as to why the majority of UVA students take honor seriously. One is obvious: the only punishment for an honor offense is immediate expulsion. We call this the “single sanction,” and it has been a part of the honor system since its inception in 1848. We can chalk up the relatively low rate of honor offenses to the fear instilled by such a harsh punishment, but I think our commitment to honor goes beyond that. Professor Michael Suarez of UVA made a powerful speech at my first-year convocation that sums up the way I, and many of my fellow students, view honor. I left convocation that cool, summer night with these words echoing in my head: “If your honor costs you nothing, if it does not require of you that you repeatedly take risks, that you evince courage, that you dare even to demonstrate love … then it means precisely nothing.”

I see value in the single sanction less as an instrument of punishment and more as a creator of character. The single sanction makes it clear how much the community of trust values the honor of its members. For almost 170 years, the character of the University has been shaped by this idea that there are no degrees of honor. Students accept that when they arrive at the University, and it contributes to an atmosphere where students don’t simply refrain from lying, cheating and stealing, but are moved to a greater commitment to compassion.

It seems like the current conversation at Williams is on the right track. Signing the code after every test is a good start. At UVA, students pledge at the end of every exam, “I have neither given nor received aid on this assignment/exam.” It is posted at the front of every classroom, but many students know it by heart. However, if the Williams student body wants to have honor not in name, but in practice, I think it requires another step. Honor is not something that pops up every time you take an exam, but a lifestyle that should contribute to a greater community of trust. Suarez made me realize that honor is about more than refusing to do wrong. That’s the easy part. It is about having the courage to always do what is right. Here, the fabric of honor is woven into everyday life. Whether this is because of the single sanction, the student self-governance or the long tradition, I don’t know. But if Williams wants to commit to a more valuable way of honorable living, it should engage the students, give them ownership of the system, and instill an atmosphere that promotes honorable behavior both inside and outside the classroom.

Nick Hine is a student at the University of Virginia. He is from Wilmette, Ill.