The honor system is a hallmark of Washington and Lee, and for many students the freedom it affords is a compelling reason to attend. However, as I have continued to reflect on and learn about the honor system in my time here, I have become more and more skeptical of the justice of it.
The definition we most often hear of an honor violation (HV) is “lying, cheating, or stealing.” Any of those transgressions could lead to a single and extreme punishment: dismissal from the school. I will address the problem with a single-sanction system in my second critique, but first I would like to focus on the operational definition of an HV. I agree that lying, cheating, and stealing all violate the community’s trust, but I think there are many other things that should count as HVs that are never (to my knowledge) pursued as such. Specifically, I think acts that fall under Title IX and are more extreme violations of the community’s trust should also be considered HVs, such as racism, homophobia, assault and other forms of violence.
While there are official administrative systems in place to deal with these issues, it is unclear to me why they should not also be considered violations of the community’s trust. If I am to trust my fellow students, it seems far more important that I know they won’t behave discriminatorily than that they don’t cheat on a test. Obviously, allowing such incidences to be pursued as honor violations would be very difficult under our current system. Many students understandably would not want to risk going to an open trial and having to relive the trauma of their experience in front of everyone. That contributes to my second critique of the honor system: the single-sanction.
The mantra of the single-sanction goes something like “it’s extreme, but it works.” However, I think we need to stop and ask ourselves, is it just? And is it limiting? Every student has heard stories of someone getting expelled for something absurd, and those stories just go to show that when there is only one punishment available, often the punishment does not fit the crime. Although there is wide variation within HVs, I think even the most obvious one such as cheating does not justify dismissal. Getting kicked out of school — especially as a student on financial aid — can be catastrophic in ways that extend years into the future, and yet the student body makes that the only option for even the smallest transgression. The differential impact of expulsion on students from different backgrounds also opens up the possibility of jury bias in open trials. Students who do not believe in a single-sanction system are not allowed to be jurors, and students would suffer the most extreme consequences from expulsion could be more likely to oppose the system.
Beyond the issues with trial structure – which could also be discouraging to people pursuing HV convictions for reasons aside from lying, cheating, and stealing – the single-sanction also inhibits our ability to maintain a community of trust. Many people, myself included, would be very hesitant to report an HV knowing that the consequences of doing so could be life-altering for the student accused. Ultimately, having an inflexible system discourages its use and therefore limits its ability to maintain the community it seeks to create. If we got rid of the single-sanction that sometimes leads to open trials, people could feel more ethical in reporting HVs of all varieties and therefore make our student government more fair and more useful.
The honor system, as it stands now, is both unfair and ineffective in creating the community it claims to. The Executive Committee could be an amazing tool for students to fight prejudice, but only if we alter the system. Students have the power to amend the White Book, and given the shortcomings of the system as it is, I think eliminating the single-sanction warrants discussion at the very least. The honor system is meant to create the sort of community we all want to be a part of, and it is time we change the system to make the sort of community of which we can all be proud.