In a change both stunning and at least 50 years in coming, the University of Virginia Honor System will no longer expel students who violate the Honor Code.
Following a University-wide student vote the first week in March, a two-semester suspension becomes the new single sanction, the exclusive penalty for lying, cheating or stealing.
It won by a landslide. Reformers needed a three-fifths vote to prevail, but they won with four-fifths—80 percent, plus a few votes extra. Voter turnout was 24 percent, on par with other recent Honor student referendums and more than double the 10 percent constitutional minimum.
Greater turnout likely wouldn’t have changed the outcome, given the surplus of yea votes and how elected representatives reflected the prevailing sentiment. More than 60 percent of Honor Committee representatives backed the measure. Student Council endorsed it unanimously.
“We were hoping that if there was to be a change of this magnitude that it would be with a commanding margin, because I think that sends a clear signal that a closer margin may not have,” says Honor Committee Representative Christopher Benos (Col ’18, Law ’22), the third-year law student and seven-year Honor System veteran who led the reform movement.
“I won’t say I was shocked that it passed,” says Honor Chair Andy Chambers (Col ’22), the measure’s highest-profile opponent. That doesn’t mean he expected a four-to-one rout, “but that’s how it shook out,” he says.
The proposal had the advantage of simplicity. Different from all reform proposals that had come before it, this one didn’t try to add lesser penalties to the Honor System menu. It made a deft edit to what was already there. The new language replaces one word in the Honor Constitution with four, mandating the Honor Committee exclude proven offenders “for two full semesters” instead of “permanently.”
As a result, UVA Honor will continue to have “a single sanction,” one form of punishment, but not “the single sanction,” the catchphrase used in more than 50 years of Honor debates as a synonym for permanent exile.
The new meaning mirrors how the UVA Honor concept of “the community of trust” has evolved. It once served as the chief justification for expulsion, maintaining the integrity of the community by purging those who have broken the social contract not to lie, cheat or steal. Over time, notions of community, and of trust, have expanded to contemplate the grace of second chances, often framed within the educational mission—the compassion to allow students to learn from their mistakes. Benos says, “The community of trust is about so much more than expulsion.”
In ending a 180-year UVA tradition, the banishment of Honor transgressors, the vote affirmed an even older one: student self-governance, which traces to Thomas Jefferson and the founding, well before the storied birth of an honor system. Both UVA President James E. Ryan (Law ’92) and Rector Whittington W. Clement (Col ’70, Law ’74), a former Honor chair himself, struck on the theme of self-governance in statements they issued days ahead of the voting, encouraging students to exercise their power responsibly.
To the broader community, Ryan talked about UVA Honor’s higher ideal. “The Honor System is more than sanctions or a system of punishment for infractions,” he said in the release. “It is a shared value and commitment; it is fundamental to our ethos. It is an indelible characteristic of a Virginia graduate.”
Less Change than Appears
For all its historic import, the reform doesn’t operationally change much. That’s because the vote wasn’t the first successful softening of the expulsion penalty in the history of the Honor System. It was the second.
In 2013, a supermajority voted in “informed retraction,” or “I.R.,” a provision that allows a student to cop to a two-semester suspension within seven days of being confronted with an Honor violation, subject to a set of conditions. Since then, a two-semester suspension has been the de facto Honor sanction. Formal expulsion has been the exception, a phenomenon that occurs about twice a year.
In the past eight academic years through spring 2021, there have been 15 expulsions upon conviction at trial, representing 9 percent of all punishments the Honor System has meted out during the period, according to Honor Committee data. That compares with 149 I.R. suspensions, 85 percent of the total.
Making up the remaining 6 percent of guilty outcomes are the 11 students in eight years who admitted culpability by leaving the University on their own. The new two-semester maximum will likely reduce those numbers since it’s no longer as stark a choice.
The rule change puts informed retraction in a similar limbo. Why be forced into a seven-day snap decision if you would fare no worse trying your luck in an Honor trial or confessing on the eve of it? The next Honor Committee will have to decide whether it wants to come up with new ways to reward prompt confessions or develop some other plea-bargaining mechanism, Chambers and Benos say.
17th Time Was the Charm
Support for expulsion as the only answer for Honor crimes has been fraying for decades. Since 1972, proposals to mitigate the penalty have come up for student vote 17 times, about once every three years, based on Virginia Magazine research. While defenders of the expulsion-only rule had regularly beaten back reform efforts before this referendum, the votes had gotten closer in recent years. A 2016 vote to give the Honor Committee the power to adopt lesser punishments fell just 1 percentage point short of the supermajority needed for passage.
The decade-by-decade decline in the percentage of student voters willing to support an expulsion-only Honor System tracks a trend line that emerged in Virginia Magazine’s Vox Alumni Special Report (Winter 2021), where the percentage of alumni who considered the Honor System a favorable part of their student experience decreased the more recent their decade of graduation.
Those roughly parallel trend lines gave last week’s vote an element of inevitability. For years, reform has seemed more a matter of when than if. Even Chambers, the most vocal opponent of the two-semesters amendment, has been willing to move the Honor System away from expulsion-only. He came into office as Honor chair favoring a more comprehensive approach to reform, including allowing gradations of penalties. Part of his objection to the measure that passed is that it’s piecemeal. At a Cavalier Daily town hall meeting leading up to the election, he said the proposed simple fix “kneecaps” the time and effort others have devoted to fuller Honor reform.
The Honor System still faces an extensive list of challenges, among them low case numbers, the faculty’s waning confidence, and the overgrown underbrush of Honor System bylaws.
“The focus of this proposal has been, ‘Pick something that tackles what is the biggest problem for students, but not every problem,’” reform leader Benos told Virginia Magazine last fall.
Now it falls to future Honor Committees, starting with the one that takes office in April, to work out the details, including what to do with informed retraction, and addressing the litany of other challenges facing the UVA Honor System—few of them new, all of them important and none of them easy.