Skip to main content

Honor Allows a Fuller Confession

Now, even unrelated offenses can find grace

Informed Retraction, the most sweeping modification to the University of Virginia Honor System in decades, now sweeps more broadly. By an 18-5 vote, the Honor Committee decided in February to allow the provision’s protection from expulsion to cover Honor violators who admit to multiple, unrelated offenses when confronted about at least one.

Jon Krause

The move resolves a complication that has dogged the confess-when-caught option since it became part of the Honor System in 2013. Informed Retraction provides a heavily conditioned pathway for accused students to take a two-semester leave to avoid an Honor hearing, where the only available punishment is permanent expulsion, known as the single sanction.

Once formally accused, a student has seven days to make an Informed Retraction. The student then must make a series of prescribed amends with each affected party, including the dean of students and his or her academic dean, take the year’s leave, and then return with a clean slate.

A student can invoke Informed Retraction only once in an academic career, a rule that raised procedural questions about the breadth of its coverage. That restriction becomes an issue in cases where a single incident entails multiple violations, such as lying to your professor about cheating, or the compounding theft of stealing your roommate’s credit card and then using it for several purchases. If the Informed Retraction covers only one of the component violations, but not the entire bundle, it has no practical effect.

That, in turn, had prompted a running four-year debate over the definition of related offenses. The new revision cuts through that knot by allowing accused students to fess up to all Honor crimes—related or unrelated, discovered or undiscovered, committed this year or in a previous one—in one sufficiently detailed admission.

It’s a procedural decluttering intended to let Informed Retraction fulfill its original objectives of atonement and forgiveness. The new rule says, in effect: Confess all sins, follow a litany of requirements for doing right by each person you’ve wronged, agree to suspend your UVA education for two semesters, and we’ll allow you dispensation to return. Err again, and you’re expelled.

Lack of forgiveness has been an increasing criticism of the single sanction—that it lacks the care or capacity to give second chances to students who learn from their mistakes. As a result, notes Owen Gallogly (Col ’13, Law ’19), who helped draft the original Informed Retraction provision as an undergraduate and the latest revision as a law student, the single sanction created a retrograde incentive. It forced offenders, who might otherwise be repentant, to compound their original offense by lying their way through Honor trials to stay in school.

While a system of lesser penalties might mitigate that effect, it still doesn’t promote personal growth, at odds with an institution of higher learning.

On the other hand, allowing a blanket confession would seem to grant impunity to the career Honor criminal, someone who may have cheated throughout the first three-and-a-half years on Grounds, only to be caught in the final semester. Gallogly, a single-sanction proponent, says he considers that an unlikely scenario, based on the 40 Honor cases he’s seen over his years on Grounds. He notes, too, that the rule’s copious demands for making amends, including surrendering your academic fate to each affected professor, make it impractical to remain at the University.

As he puts it, “Yes, you could’ve cheated in seven classes, but seven Fs is going to be very challenging for you to recover from.”

Since inception, Informed Retraction has complicated Honor’s bedrock principle of maintaining “the community of trust,” the traditional justification for the single sanction—why someone who lies, cheats or steals cannot remain here. Allowing someone who has committed several unrelated Honor offenses to find a way back to the University complicates the concept even further.

The community-of-trust principle drew the special attention of an Honor System study commission that presented its findings to the Board of Visitors in March. Empaneled in 2016 after a student vote to change the single sanction fell just one percentage point shy of a needed supermajority, the committee of alumni, students, faculty and others undertook an audit of the system. Their report avoids specific recommendations in deference to students’ having the ultimate authority for Honor self-governance. Instead, it makes a series of suggestions, including new approaches for improving student representation and engagement as well as faculty engagement.

The commission was particularly mindful of the single sanction when it encouraged Honor System proponents “to reframe the discussion around the community of trust.” The concept should no longer be used as the primary justification for the single sanction, the report says, because “Honor now facilitates a process by which those who have violated the Code can return to the community.”

Hearing the commission’s report alongside the update on Informed Retraction at the spring Board of Visitors meeting, Whitt Clement (Col ’70, Law ’74), a former Honor chair himself, asked Honor Chair Devin Rossin (Col ’18) whether it’s “a little disingenuous” to refer to the UVA Honor System as single sanction. Rossin pointed out that expulsion is still the only penalty at trial. It’s before things get that far that students have some options, including Informed Retraction. Rossin said, “It is still technically a single sanction, if philosophically it isn’t a single sanction.”