We, The Students

Easley and Committee
Kendrix Easley with the Committee (1977) [Image Courtesy of Cavalier Daily: 1977, February 01]
The Honor Committee’s first constitution, ratified in response to the Committee’s first African-American chair, leaves a complex legacy.

We, The Students

Author: Ory Streeter (Medicine 2019)  |  February/11/2019

On March 25, 1976, Kendrix Easley celebrated his election as President of the College of Arts and Sciences and de facto University Honor Committee Chairman. Within a year, the Honor Committee would ratify its first constitution. Easley, however, would be ushered out of his position having endured challenges never before experienced by the Committee chair - because the chair of the Honor Committee had never before been black.

The spirit of honor, the “Honor System”, and the “Honor Committee” are not synonymous. The spirit of honor is best understood as the ethos of honesty, integrity, and service which pervades the Community of Trust. The Honor System refers to the ways in which the spirit is codified and adjudicated. And the Honor Committee is the group of students who have embraced the “privilege and responsibility of administering and enforcing the Honor Code for the University of Virginia” [01]. The Honor Committee’s authority to adjudicate violations of the Honor Code was slowly carved out of the early University with the support of the faculty and Board of Visitors.

In 1851, “the first recorded honor trial ended with the expulsion of [a medical student]. Charged with cheating by several fellow students, [he] was found guilty by an all-faculty committee and dismissed”. [02] Students continued to exercise increasing control over University discipline. In 1897, a special committee reporting to the BOV acknowledged that the maturing “system of disciplinary law and order among the students themselves [was] one of the finest distinguishing features of [the University]” [03]. In 1912, student Churchhill Humphrey successfully proposed “a new UVA student government” including “the creation of a permanent Honor Committee to consist of the student presidents of the University’s various schools” [02] and perpetually chaired by the president of the College of Arts and Sciences. Over the next three years, the Honor Committee began to adjudicate violations of no-gambling and no-drinking pledges as well as the writing of “bad checks” [02]. Twenty years later, the 1932 BOV stated their support of the expanding responsibilities of the now-seasoned Honor Committee:

“The heart of student discipline at the University of Virginia is the honor system. Since June, 1842, the student body has exercised complete authority in the operation of the honor system... ‘the essence of the system’ is ‘that the violation of a student's word of honor is an offense not against the University authorities but against the whole student body’... the Board of Visitors finds no justification for its interference in the decision of the previous Honor Committee”. [04]

The Board of Visitors continued to support the student-run Honor System even in the face of recurrent appeals for intervention [05, 06] and a changing University. In 1950, UVA admitted its first African-American student when “a federal court compelled the law school to admit Gregory Swanson, over the objections of the Board of Visitors, which cited the state law against integration”. [07] Swanson struggled in the hostile environment and “left after one year”. [07] Black enrollment slowly increased but black students in the 60’s faced continued abuse. Pelted by lit cigarettes, spat upon, refused service, and restricted to separate seating - these first black students formed tight communities to support one another. [07] By the 1970s, when women joined the University in earnest, the University population was around 8,000 students. [07] But in 1971, only 250 students were black - just 3% of all students. [07]

Kendrix Easley, a black man from rural Henry County Virginia, matriculated in 1973. Easley was an “A-minus student” at the University [08] and well-liked, participating in the “University Debate Society, the Big Brother Committee, the Dramatics Club and the Martial Arts Club”. [08] In the March of Easley’s third year (1976) he was elected as the first black President of the College and de facto Honor Committee Chairman by a 2-1 margin. [09] The color barrier insulating a premiere student leadership position had been broken - and black students finally had a Committee chair who shared the black experience. Things looked promising in September (1976) as Easley, along with a majority of the Honor Committee, voted to reopen private Committee meetings to the public [10]. But by November, the Committee was calling for Easley’s resignation and adopting bylaw changes “allowing [the Committee] to remove... [the Committee] chairman” [11].

The Committee cited a litany of alleged offenses categorized as Easley’s “misrepresentation [of facts],  administrative incompetence, and failure to meet social obligations” [11, 12]. Committee members acknowledged that the list contained some “trivial” charges but argued they were “indicative of [Easley’s attitude] which made it difficult for the committee to function with him as chairman”. [12] Other allegations- such as procedural errors and “moving to strike” fellow Committee members during an argument - were more serious. [12]  Easley called the complaints “the largest distortion of facts [he had] ever seen” [12] and suggested the true problem was an unreasonable chair workload [13] but he refused to quit.

Tensions persisted into the winter. On Wednesday December 1st, 1976 - unable to persuade Easley to resign and unsure if he could, or should, be removed - the Committee stripped Easley of several essential administrative and judicial powers, including the Chairman’s right to speak on behalf of the Committee. [13] In January, UVA “Black Student Alliance Chairman Rhonda Simpson [charged] that the committee ‘appears (to be) totally racist”. [14] The Student Council Minority Affairs Committee Chairman believed this was another example of “blacks in positions of responsibility (being) screwed”. [14] On January 28th, 1977, Easley conducted a press conference with his lawyer and an NAACP representative who said race was “definitely” playing a role in the controversy but “may not be the only issue”. [14] A committee member, resigning over dissatisfaction with Easley, a timorous Committee, and the controversy’s belabored resolution, implied Easley’s racial identity was protective when he commented that “[Easley] is damn lucky he’s black”. [15]  

During the first week of February 1977, an ad hoc group of student leaders (including the Cavalier Daily Executive Editor and BSA Chairman) proposed a solution to the ongoing conflict. First - the creation of an Honor Committee constitution. Second - ratification of that constitution during an early election for new Honor Committee members. [15] On February 7th, 1977, Student Council announced the appointment of a panel to draft the constitution. [16] They completed their first draft by February 11th and prepared for the University-wide vote. Simultaneously, Student Council voted to advance Honor Committee elections by one month. [17] On Wednesday February 23rd, 1977, the student body elected a new Committee and ratified the Honor Committee Constitution [18] - the first in the 135 year history of the Honor System.

The entire constitution was drafted, debated, and ratified by the student body within a month of inception in order to align with the accelerated election of new Honor Committee members for the expressed purpose of more quickly replacing Easley and the discredited Committee. [15] Given Committee frustrations with Easley, and the student body’s frustration with the Committee, the radical constitutional changes were not surprising. The new Constitution empowered the elected Committee to internally appoint a chair for the first time since the 1912 establishment of the Committee. It also provided for: formal written procedures; detailed rights of accused students; recall of Committee members; impeachment and removal of incompetent officers; and Committee proposed referendums. [19]

While the new Committee celebrated, Easley suffered. He was repeatedly threatened with Honor charges [15] and subjected to racial slurs [08]. He was targeted with the distribution of a fake doctor note implying he was mentally ill, leading to late night chants of “psycho” outside his lawn room window. [08, 20] He began to struggle academically and was rejected “at every law school he applied to”. [08] His complaint to the U.S. Office of Civil Rights that “racial discrimination permeates student life at the University of Virginia” was dismissed “without merit” and OCR investigations found “no racial motivation” to the Honor conflict. [21] But clarity is the gift of retrospection. Race might not have been the primary motivating factor behind the conflict but, understanding what we now know about implicit bias and the many ways black students were suffering at UVA, it’s impossible to conclude that race was not at least one factor in the transformational saga.

We cannot change the past - but we should cherish its lessons while thoughtfully considering the present and optimistically looking to the future. The Honor Committee Constitution continues to serve as the tether between the spirit of honor, the students of the University, and the elected leaders of the Honor Committee. The Board of Visitors continues to affirm the authority of the Honor Committee via resolutions in 1995 and again in 2001. The first of many enumerated BOV duties is “the preservation of the ideals and traditions of the University and particularly encouragement of the maintenance of the Honor System by the student body” [22], responsibilities shared by its Rector, the President, and the faculty. [22] We, the students, must likewise embrace this beautiful challenge - with all its complex history - for the enduring promise of better tomorrows.


[01] University of Virginia Board of Visitors. (2001, April 06). Resolution on the honor system. Retrieved from: http://xtf.lib.virginia.edu/xtf/view?docId=bov_2008_07_07/uvaGenText/tei/bov_20010406.xml;chunk.id=d44;toc.depth=1;toc.id=;brand=default

[02] Barefoot, C. (2008, Spring). The Evolution of Honor: Enduring Principle, Changing Times. Virginia Magazine. Retrieved from: http://uvamagazine.org/articles/the_evolution_of_honor#1825

[03] University of Virginia Board of Visitors. (1897, June 04). Meeting minutes. Retrieved from: http://xtf.lib.virginia.edu/xtf/view?docId=2006_06/uvaGenText/tei/bov_18970614.xml

[04] University of Virginia Board of Visitors. (1932, June 13). Meeting minutes. Retrieved from: http://xtf.lib.virginia.edu/xtf/view?docId=2007_03/uvaGenText/tei/bov_19320613.xml;query=honor%20committee;brand=default;hit.rank=1

[05] University of Virginia Board of Visitors. (1955, September 09). Meeting minutes. Retrieved from: http://xtf.lib.virginia.edu/xtf/view?docId=bov/1950/bov_19550909.xml;query=honor%20committee;brand=default;hit.rank=2

[06] University of Virginia Board of Visitors. (1960, December 10). Meeting minutes. Retrieved from: http://xtf.lib.virginia.edu/xtf/view?docId=2006_10/uvaGenText/tei/bov_19601210.xml;query=honor%20committee;brand=default;hit.rank=1

[07] Gates, E. (n.d.). Integrating from behind the scenes. Virginia Magazine. Retrieved from: http://uvamagazine.org/articles/integrating_from_behind_the_scenes

[08] Gup, T. (1978, Sep 21). University 'prank' ruined life, student's suit charges. The Washington Post (1974-Current File), pp. 2. Retrieved from http://proxy01.its.virginia.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy01.its.virginia.edu/docview/146888265?accountid=14678

[09] Grossberg, J. (1976, March 26). Easley captures post over Marsteller, 2-1. The Cavalier Daily.  

[10] Godec, B., DeWitt, L. (1976, September 21). Honor Committee opens meetings. The Cavalier Daily.

[11] Editor. (1977, February 1). Easley versus committee. The Cavalier Daily.

[12] Melton, R., Godec, B. (1977, January 27). Panel members charge Easley incompetent. The Cavalier Daily.

[13] Melton, R., Godec, B. (1976, December 3). Committee trims Easley’s power. The Cavalier Daily.

[14] Godec, B. (1977, January 31). Courts, Sedgwick quit committee. The Cavalier Daily.

[15] Godec, B., Kenney, N. (1977, February 1). Group proposes early honor elections: Measures directed at resolving conflict. The Cavalier Daily.

[16] Pashayan, L. (1977, February 7). Charter panel named. The Cavalier Daily.

[17] Pashayan, L. (1977, February 3). Honor panel elections moved to Feb 22-23. The Cavalier Daily.

[18] Godee, B. (1977, February 24). Honor constitution ratified. The Cavalier Daily.

[19] Editor. (1977, February 21). The Honor Committee Constitution. The Cavalier Daily.

[20] Weisenberger, S. (1977, February 23). Easley discloses document. The Cavalier Daily.

[21] Ringle, K. (1979, Feb 14). Complaint of bias at U-va. dismissed. The Washington Post (1974-Current File), pp. 1. Retrieved from http://proxy01.its.virginia.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy01.its.virginia.edu/docview/147085376?accountid=14678

[22] University of Virginia Board of Visitors. (2005). Manual of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia: Rev. through December 7, 2018. (§2.4). University Press; Charlottesville. Retrieved: https://bov.virginia.edu/sites/bov.virginia.edu/files/WEB%20FRIENDLY%20VERSION%20-%20BOV%20MANUAL%20-%20December%202018.pdf