The Evolution of the Honor System
Author: Derrick Wang (College 2020) | February/11/2019
The Honor System is one of the University of Virginia’s most distinctive traditions. However, the Honor System has not remained static and unchanging over its 177 years of history. Its humble origins as a clever tactic to prevent students from cheating on exams to its modern role as a student-run institution that adjudicates reported students.
Origins: The Honor Pledge (1842)
Countless students and alumni of the University have heard the story. On the night of November 12th in 1840, professor and chairman of the faculty John A.G. Davis stepped out of Pavilion X in order to quiet a disturbance on the Lawn. Two students in masks were celebrating the anniversary of the student riot in 1836 by shooting their pistols and carousing on the Lawn. As Davis attempted to seize one of the students, the student shot him. Davis would die two days later from the wound. Two years later, the new chairman of the faculty Henry St. George Tucker proposed a resolution that the faculty adopt what we now know as the Honor Pledge:
“Resolved, that in all future written examinations for distinction and other honors of the University each candidate shall attach to the written answers presented by him on such examination a certificate in the following words—I, A.B., do hereby certify that I have derived no assistance during the time of this examination from any sources whatever, whether oral, written or in print in giving the above answers.”
While no historical evidence exists that the shooting of John A.G. Davis inspired Henry St. George Tucker to create the Honor Pledge, this incident marked a key turning point in relations between faculty and students, as well as the beginning of a more formal honor culture at the University.
The Early Culture of Honor (Late 1800’s)
It is unlikely that Henry St. George Tucker thought his pledge would ever extend beyond classroom examinations. But students at the University took the concept of honor and expanded it far beyond the classroom, creating an informal code of behavior that governed every man. The ideals of honor went beyond lying, cheating, and stealing, as students used the Honor System to prevent drinking at dances, cheating at cards, or insulting women. This idea of honor was closely tied to the ideal of the Southern gentleman, as the student body consisted mainly of wealthy white men from Southern gentility. At this point, the Honor System remained highly informal, where students would raise complaints against other students and either the whole student body or an informally appointed group of students would adjudicate cases. Students found guilty were forced to leave the University permanently, with no exceptions: this policy of expulsion eventually became known as the Single Sanction.
The Honor Committee as an Institution (Early 1900’s)
By the turn of the century, the Honor Committee became more formalized, slowly transforming into the institution of student government that it is today. The famous “Honor Men” poem was written by James Hay Jr. in 1903. As early as 1908, new first years would gather together at Madison Hall to be instructed in the Honor System, the beginning of what would become the Honor Convocation. The Honor Committee was formally created in 1912 and consisted of the student presidents of each of the schools of the University. This body developed formal procedures and due process protections, quickly becoming a bedrock institution that had significant sway over University culture. The Bad Check Committee was also established in 1923 to deal with students who had written bad checks to local merchants, an increasingly serious problem under the Honor Committee’s purview.
The Honor Committee originally published the names of those expelled for honor offenses and their cases, though by the 1940s closed trials had become the norm for legal and confidentiality reasons. The Honor Committee often faced controversy over its strict decisions, such as expelling a student who had answered present for an absent friend during roll call or a student who had signed a non-smoking pledge for athletics but was no longer on the team and decided to smoke. There were other controversies over naval cadet students, who felt that their service overrode their obligation to the Honor Committee, as well as a general concern that the Honor System was weakening due to increasing enrollment.
Tradition at a Changing University (Mid 1900’s)
The post-war years at UVA were an era of immense change for both the University and the Honor System. The return of students from WWII as well as the onset of integration greatly changed the University culture. Many students continued to worry about the strength of the Honor System; bad checks continued to plague the Honor Committee and overwhelm the resources of the Bad Check Committee, increasing enrollment threatened to dilute the traditions of honor, integration and coeducation both threatened the traditional Southern white gentleman ideal of honor, and a general sense of declining faith in the institution concerned many students. Additionally, the question of fake IDs for alcohol persisted; though the Honor Committee agreed to not investigate lying for alcohol in 1934, it reversed itself in 1955 and then it reversed again in 1969, finally adopting no formal position on the issue. Despite all this, the Honor System was frequently upheld by professors and students alike as one of the University’s greatest traditions. Opinion articles and speeches from the 1950s and 1960s speak of Honor as a shining ideal and critical foundation to the University’s moral culture.
Controversy and Looking Forward (Late 1900’s)
The decades before 2000 were a time of enormous change at the University. The first of nearly a dozen referenda on the Single Sanction occurred in 1972, with a majority voting to uphold the policy. Other major procedural changes regarding the appeal process, trained honor investigators, investigative panels as grand juries, and honor advisors for students were implemented in the 70’s and 80’s as well. The Honor Committee adopted its first written constitution, ratified by the student body, in 1977. The Conscientious Retraction (CR), which allowed students to come forward and admit honor offenses before being reported without consequences, was approved by referendum codified in 1982. The Honor Committee also withstood legal challenges about due process and constitutionality through the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Notable cases include that of Olden Polynice, a star basketball player who was cleared of honor charges after arguing that his conduct of turning in someone else’s paper as his own did not meet the reprehensibility criterion of guilt. Christopher Leggett, who was originally found guilty at trial, had his verdict overturned by the administration after his case was allegedly mishandled by the Honor Committee. Diversity also became a more important issue for the Honor Committee, with multiple studies commissioned to study the Honor System for systemic bias against racial minorities. Black students, especially student-athletes, often faced higher rates of reports than other groups of students. As the Honor Committee made efforts to address the disparity, in 1999 the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that the Honor Committee did not violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Honor in the New Millennium (2000-2010)
As the University entered a new millennium, the Honor System also began a new era. The Honor Committee faced issues of student and faculty apathy; many who saw honor offenses chose not to report them, according to studies in 2001 and later. Physics professor Lou Bloomfield discovered evidence of mass plagiarism using a computer program in 2001 and reported 157 cases of cheating, the most ever in the Honor Committee’s history. While all the cases were eventually adjudicated, Bloomfield criticized the Honor System’s procedures as time-consuming “careericide”. A major debate over the Single Sanction arose in 2005, with a majority of students recommending in a referendum that the Honor Committee consider alternative sanctions. However, the Single Sanction would survive two more referenda in 2007 and 2009.
Despite these challenges, the Honor Committee continued to implement new initiatives like the dorm liaison program for first year honor education, Greek organization education programs, as well as a rebranding of the Bad Check Committee as the Community Relations Committee. Other procedural changes regarding psychological evidence and health conditions are made, as well as an increased focus on addressing issues of bias.
Honor: Tradition in the Modern Day (2010-Present)
In its most recent years, Honor has continued to expand the Community of Trust. The introduction of the Informed Retraction (IR), which allows students to admit to an honor offense and take two semesters off from UVA instead of facing the Single Sanction, significantly changed how the Honor Committee worked. The IR was originally part of a 2012 referendum proposal called “Restore the Ideal”, which combined the IR with a return to juries composed only of Honor Committee representatives, rather than allowing the option of all random student jurors. However, a law student proposed a separate referendum with just the IR and no jury reform: this referendum passed, while “Restore the Ideal” did not. In 2015, a number of referenda were proposed. One required the Honor Committee to hold a biannual popular assembly. Another stated that if a non-binding question of student opinion concerning the Honor System was passed with a majority vote, the Honor Committee would be required to put that same question to the student body as a constitutional amendment the following year. The final referendum was a non-binding question on whether the Honor Committee should consider a multi-sanction system. The first two referenda passed, while the the non-binding question passed with a majority, meaning that next year’s ballot would once again have a binding Single Sanction vote.
The Honor Committee spent the next year researching multi-sanction systems and eventually put Option 1 and Option 2 on the ballot: keep the Single Sanction or open the door to multi-sanction for future Committees to implement. In spring of 2016, Option 2 obtained a majority but fell short of the 60% threshold for a constitutional amendment. As a response, the Honor Committee formed an Honor Audit Commission to examine the state of the Honor System, which released its report in 2018, recommending a number of procedural, educational, and cultural changes to the Honor System. The Democratization Amendment, lowering the threshold for constitutional amendments to 55%, is proposed in 2017 but fails to gain a majority of the vote. The Committee would successfully amend its constitution to be gender-neutral the following year.
The present Honor Committee continues to examine the sanctioning debate and consider different ways of sanctioning honor offenses, as more referenda on the Single Sanction are inevitable in the coming decades. Concerns about diversity and relationships with minority communities remain central to the Community Relations and Diversity Advisory Committee’s work. The over representation of international students within reports received by the Honor Committee has become a more pressing issue, while the spotlighting of black students has become less acute in recent years. Procedural changes to create a fairer and more just process continue as the Committee expands the Informed Retraction, amends its Contributory Health Impairment procedures, and emphasizes better advising for reported students and reporters of cases.
The Honor System remains one of the University of Virginia’s most unique and valuable traditions. Through UVA’s history, the Honor System has been a crucial institution of student self-governance and a foundation of the University’s culture. The controversy and debate sparked by the Honor System continues to this day, reflecting the deep investment that students across generations have in this institution. Now, the Honor Committee seeks to address new challenges and set out a path forward for Honor’s next century of existence.