Decline of the Honor System: UVa Edition

by James A. Bacon

In elections this week, University of Virginia students will vote on a measure to reduce the punishment for honor-code violations (lying, cheating, stealing) from expulsion to a two-semester suspension. At least 10% of the student body must participate in the referendum, and of those who vote 60% must vote in favor.

The honor code is administered by students, not the university administration, and it has evolved over time as cultural values have changed. But faculty, administrators and the Board of Visitors traditionally have buttressed the system. For decades, stirring introductions of the honor code were a central part of the student orientation. Benefactors endowed the alumni association with a multimillion-dollar fund to support the system. To this day, the Board of Visitors mission statement lists preservation of the honor code as one of the board’s core duties.

The system has eroded badly.

Support for the single sanction has declined in part due to changing student values. Moral relativism, situational ethics and a reluctance to administer harsh punishments predominate in the student body. Indeed, viewing honor through a social-justice lens, some see the system as a tool of racial and cultural oppression. But UVa leadership bears a share of the blame. Recent administrations have taken an increasingly laissez-faire approach. Student orientations place far more emphasis on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion than honor.

I’ll concede, the honor code does raise sticky questions about what constitutes a “lie.” “No, honey, you don’t look fat in those jeans,” is a harmless social lie. Lying about one’s age to get a fake ID is far more serious. There is a wide spectrum of gray between the extremes. But there was never any ambivalence about cheating or stealing. Rigid adherence to the honor code created a “community of trust” in Charlottesville. Students could leave their backpacks, books, and other belongings in public spaces secure in the knowledge that no one would take them. Merchants accepted checks without asking for IDs. Professors allowed students to take tests in their dorm rooms — no need for proctors. 

Trust is a form of social capital that allows people to do things they would not otherwise be able to do. As Francis Fukuyama explained in his 1995 classic, “Trust; The Social Virtues & the Creation of Prosperity,” high trust societies (which then included the United States) enjoy tremendous advantages over low trust societies. People cooperate more readily in business, civic and political life. Those in authority are more willing to delegate power and responsibility. High levels of trust allow more innovative forms of social and economic organization to emerge.

The United States is evolving into a low-trust society. Gallup polls show that Americans’ trust in public institutions near the lowest level since it began tracking public opinion after the Watergate scandal. Only 12% express confidence in Congress, 16% in television news, 20% in the criminal justice system, and 21% in newspapers. The only institutions scoring above 50% are the police (51%), the military (69%), and small business (70%).

The Gallup poll doesn’t ask how much Americans trust each other. But a 2019 Pew Research poll did explore that question — and the findings are discouraging.  Sixty-four percent said that Americans’ level of trust in one another has been shrinking. Respondents blamed greed, dishonesty, crime, racism, corrupt and ineffective government, biased news media, the decline in religion, and Donald Trump, among others.

What the poll did not explore was changing social mores or the role of leadership (or lack of it). American culture today is far more preoccupied with excusing peoples’ ethical lapses (except those of their partisan foes) than articulating and upholding moral standards. In that regard, UVa is a sad reflection of American society as a whole.

I belong to the Jefferson Council, an alumni-led organization whose primary goals include upholding the honor system. Our discussions with faculty members have found that the code is in serious disarray. Cheating is rampant. Students are reluctant to bring charges. The adjudication system has become more bureaucratic and time-consuming for the professors who do. Sometimes professors find themselves on the defensive. Few are willing, we have heard, to undergo the ordeal.

In response to the news of the student referendum, according to UVA Today, Rector Whittington W. Clement praised the honor code but did not endorse the single sanction. “Even as society has changed in profound ways since our student days, core values of truthfulness and fairness in dealing with others is immutable,” he said. “We trust that students will weigh the merits of the proposal and be guided by a deep conviction that an effective, fair system of honor should continue to be a hallmark of every University of Virginia student and graduate.”

President Jim Ryan was more diffident. He damned the honor system with faint praise: “At its best, the Honor System fosters a culture and a community — a community of trust — and is internalized as a way of life.” At its best? What does that mean? Are we to infer that UVa’s honor system falls short?

Alluding to UVa’s tradition of student self-governance, Ryan stressed that students are in charge. “Educate yourself about the Honor System and this referendum. Reach out to your friends and to alumni to learn from their views and their experiences. This is ultimately your choice.”

Ryan is showing no moral leadership. The man who declares that UVa can be “great and good” is sitting this one out.

As honor codes go — and they are under assault at the Virginia Military Institute, Washington & Lee University and pretty much everywhere else — so goes America. No wonder trust in our society is eroding. No wonder Americans are losing faith in their institutions. No wonder we are a polarized and paralyzed nation. If we can’t hold the line at UVa, where can we hold the line?

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24 responses to “Decline of the Honor System: UVa Edition”

  1. As the honor code goes so goes America. While for some, UVA is the center of their universe, it is difficult to see how the whole nation would be impacted by changes to the UVA honor code. As has been said, once you leave high school nobody cares what you did there. Some folks seem to never leave college where they could be part of the “in” crowd.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Think that’s very accurate ’round these parts, Pard.

  2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    If “cheating is rampant” as you say, then the Honor Code must not be serving much purpose. As for changing student values, including moral relativism, fifty years ago, W&M had a similar honor code. That did not stop someone from stealing my bicycle and a jacket (monogrammed, no less).

  3. University of Virginia students will vote on a measure to reduce the punishment for honor-code violations (lying, cheating, stealing) from expulsion to a two-semester suspension.

    So, they are considering switching to a “Ted Kennedy” honor code.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      More than for the twice impeached, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

      1. I don’t recall him ever being kicked out of Harvard (or any other college) for cheating.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          Okay, I’m gonna wait… it’ll hit in a moment. 1, 2, 3…

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    If cheating is rampant and enforcement is selective based on whether a professor or student is willing to make a charge through the bureaucracy then the honor code needs rework. An arbitrary and capricious process where one student who is observed cheating is turned in while another doing the same thing is not isn’t a system worth saving.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      It would be if the one were given death!

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    Sort of a standard lament for Conservatives and even liberals – down through the ages.

    Sorta along the lines of ” they don’t make stuff like they used to”.

    ‘Why, when I was a kid… we had to….. , then we had to, then my pappy whipped my butt for not doing what I should have done…”

    Run Forest, Run!

  6. Rob Austin Avatar

    Ryan will dance a jig when this passes. He’ll do flips when it’s abandoned altogether. I sense a high-five between him and Teresa Sullivan is in the offing.

  7. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    How quaint.

  8. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    Jim Ryan’s duties, straight from the BOV Manual –
    SECTION 4.22 POWERS AND DUTIES — As the principal administrative officer of the University and chief executive officer of the Academic Division, the President shall have the following powers and duties:
    1 The President shall have responsibility for the operation of the University in conformity with the purposes and policies determined by the Board;
    2 The President shall act as adviser to the Board and shall have responsibility for recommending to it for consideration those policies and programs which in the opinion of the President will best
    promote the interests of the University;
    3 The President shall recommend to the Board long-range educational goals and programs and the new degrees that may be best suited to attain those goals and programs;
    4 The President shall have the power to establish and modify as he or she deems necessary the internal administrative structure of the University and shall appoint or provide for the appointment of all
    administrative officers except for the Vice Presidents and the Chancellor of The University of Virginia’s College at Wise, making a report of his or her actions thereon to the Board at the next
    regular meeting;
    5 The President shall serve as President of the Faculty Senate of the University and of the Faculty Senate of The University of Virginia’s College at Wise;
    6 The President shall have primary responsibility for the establishment and maintenance of proper relationships with the alumni;
    7 The President shall at all times maintain cordial relationships with the students, guarding and protecting their best interests;
    8 The President shall use particular efforts to preserve and foster the Honor System;

  9. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    Feckless BOV (see 3 job descriptions below) – not directing policy, letting Ryan establish policy. Not protecting the students and faculty or the Honor System.
    So what have they done, besides rubber stamp policies designed to destroy UVA as a distinctive school and crank out good little Leftists without an original thought in their craniums?
    Not their jobs…

  10. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    When I was at Briar Woods High School I worked with a number of teachers, students, and parents to come up with an honor code for the school. This was about 15 years ago. We even put up attractive metal signs for every classroom. AS the years went by enforcement declined. The penalties were watered down. It is still there. Sadly all that can be done now is a good talking to and another chance. Cheating never happens unless you are caught and pay some price for it. Otherwise cheating is getting ahead. The decline of honor codes started with high schools looking the other way.

  11. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    1968 Norview HS Norfolk, Va. The Honor Code hung in the cafeteria.
    It read: “The world will forgive you for being blue, but not for being yellow.”
    Of course, it will still give you a 3-day suspension, unless you used a knife.

    1. The silence of the lambs.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Wasn’t so bad. I was the only student with a paying gig and a set of keys to the school.

  12. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    Duty of the BOV, straight from BOV Manual
    SECTION 2.4 POWERS AND DUTIES — The powers and duties conferred upon the Board are to be
    exercised for the purpose of carrying into effect the Mission Statement contained in Chapter 1. The major powers and duties are
    1 the preservation of the ideals and traditions of the University and particularly encouragement of the maintenance of the Honor System by the student body;
    2 the establishment of general education policy;

  13. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    Duties of the Rector, straight from the BOV Manual –
    SECTION 4.1 THE RECTOR AND VICE RECTOR OF THE UNIVERSITY — The Rector of the University is especially charged with the duty of maintaining that level of interest and activity among the members of the Board of Visitors as will best contribute to the determination of broad policies, wise planning for the future, intelligent and considerate observance of the rights of the faculty and the student body, including the care and preservation of the Honor System, and maintenance of the independence of the Board from outside influences harmful to the interests of the students and faculty of the University.

  14. “Arbitrary and capricious” has been the problem since at least the early 1970s.

    There was a famous case at UVA involving a freshman who shook a coke machine violently (because he’d put in his money and the coke jammed in the chute on the way out) and found that his shaking caused it to spew not one but dozens of cokes. Not money, just the drinks themselves. So he loaded up a bookbag with ‘free’ soft drinks and took them to pass out in his dorm. And made return trips for more. Another freshman in the same dorm accused him of an honor offense, stealing. It went to the Honor Committee which wrestled with the implications of enforcing the “single sanction” (expulsion) for this. The HC found that it was stealing, and the student was expelled. Agitation and eventually a referendum to modify the “single sanction” soon followed — as Rector Clement well knows.

    The consensus view at the time, around the Grounds, sure enough, was that this was the “stealing” equivalent of a “white lie” — we’ve all been ‘cheated’ by a vending machine at some time or another so it’s only fair to ‘win’ occasionally, and, who cares about Coca Cola’s profits anyway? But the real problem was, the absolute “no steal” rule could not survive in a culture where everything is relative.

    Is “cheating” relative”? Copying an adjacent student’s answer in the testing room is the heinous offense that comes to mind; but more commonly it’s something like plagiarism, like passing off a paragraph from a Wikipedia article without attribution. Is that cheating — or somewhere on the sloppy-research scale? UVA students today come overwhelmingly from public schools where far worse forms of cheating take place regularly. Such conduct is not just tolerated by a student’s peers but essentially taught.

    Officially, still, the University expects these modern first-yearmen to change overnight into 19th Century Cavaliers ready to duel one another to the ‘death’ of expulsion over perceived violations of the Gentleman’s Code Of Honor. Today’s student body obviously doesn’t live up to this expectation even if it is, contractually, a condition of admission. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the Honor System remains on the books while rendered, practically, a nullity. Any student who observes such an offense against the community must prove himself or herself determined enough to jump through a host of due process hoops and bureaucratic hurdles, not to mention the tacit disapproval of one’s peers. Any faculty member must additionally defend the intellectual notion of “honor” as an enforceable Code. And in addition to the facts of the case, the Honor Committee now must choose where to place each violation on the scale of ‘relative dishonor’ in order to determine “relative punishment.”

    So I come back to DJR’s comment above: “An arbitrary and capricious process where one student who is observed cheating is turned in while another doing the same thing isn’t a system worth saving.” I agree completely. I wish it were not so. But, the reality on the ground is that the Honor System has become not merely a quaint aspiration but ‘arbitrary and capricious’ — the kind of ‘code’ which invites selective, abusive enforcement for extrinsic reasons, like revenge, or petty prejudice. UVA’s Honor System was established over 200 years ago as the core principle of an idealistic University ‘community of trust’ that no longer exists.

    1. Most likely the Honor System has become arbitrary and capricious, as you suggest. The question, then, is whether we scrap the system or try to reform it. I understand that the decision is up to the students. But I’d like to see some leadership from those who (as Walter points out) are charged with overseeing the Honor System.

      1. It is hypocritical to pretend there’s a community core value when the community doesn’t support it. If you mean by “leadership” that the University should verify what the community supports and then act on it, we certainly agree! Leaving those directives in the BOV’s Manual when the Board itself doesn’t take them seriously is simply living a lie — to the student body, to us alumni, to the Board itself. Isn’t lying an Honor Offense?

    2. how_it_works Avatar

      “who cares about Coca Cola’s profits anyway”

      Many of those vending machines are owned and operated not by big companies like Coca Cola, but by small businesses, perhaps so small that they only have one employee.

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