The University of Virginia Honor Code

May 15th, 2011

By Dan Miller

There is a dispute at the University of Virginia over the consequences of the conduct of a third-year student at the law school.

In a letter to the editor of the Virginia Law Weekly dated April 22, Johnathan Perkins, who is black, detailed a walk to his apartment during which two officers pulled him over without legitimate cause, mocked him, searched him, shoved him against the police car, and eventually followed him home.

Two weeks after publication and a subsequent police investigation, Perkins recanted.

“I wrote the article to bring attention to the topic of police misconduct,” he wrote in a statement. “The events in the article did not occur.”

Campus Police Chief Michael Gibson did not file charges, saying that doing so “might inhibit another individual who experiences real police misconduct from coming forward with a complaint.”

No action has been taken against Mr. Perkins by the University and none should be necessary because that is the proper function of the Honor Committee

When I was a student at the University of Virginia School of Law ages ago, 1963 – 1966, the Honor Code was a central part of student life. It then prohibited, and still does, lying, cheating and stealing. Those words are not difficult to understand; lying involves telling a material falsehood knowing it to be untrue; Mr. Perkins surely knew when he made them that his statements were untrue. In consequence of the way the Honor Code worked, students felt quite free to leave their bicycles, books, class notes and the like lying about unattended on the University Grounds. Lying was very rare. Examinations were not generally monitored by faculty and, once examinations had been handed out, students were free to complete them wherever they chose.  Signing the paper on which the examination answers were written constituted an affirmation that there had been no cheating. There was a great sense of honor and of the trust it inspires.

Totally student run, without “adult supervision,” the system worked very well. The procedure then was that if a student caught another student lying, cheating or stealing at the University he was required to confront him and to demand that he withdraw. Should the accused student decline to withdraw, the student who had caught him was required to notify the Honor Council (as I recall it was then named); failure to do so was itself an Honor Code violation. These procedures appear to have changed, and now students are merely encouraged to report a suspected violation to a representative of the Honor Committee. The only penalty for any Honor Code violation was, and apparently remains, being required to withdraw:  no second chances, no mitigation of the severity of the punishment and no appeal.

The Honor Council met to adjudicate cases brought before it. A law student was made available as counsel for the accused and another prosecuted. I once prosecuted a case and, after a full hearing, the accused was found not guilty. I thought it was a fair decision, and believe that the same was true of similar proceedings — although I have no way of knowing because all proceedings were kept confidential; not even the names of those standing accused were released.

Upon an adjudication of not guilty, nothing further happened, officially or unofficially. Upon an adjudication of guilty, the accused was expelled and a black-bordered notice appeared in the student daily announcing only that a student, not named, had withdrawn because of an Honor Code violation. That was it and it was quite enough. He was gone, would not be readmitted and would not be graduated. For someone who had spent four years in college and almost three years in law school, facing such a consequence for his actions may seem rather draconian. Tough. Everyone, from college freshmen to graduate students, had been made well aware of the Honor Code and had pledged to abide by it; everyone was well aware of the consequence of violation — there was only one permissible consequence.

According to the article linked above,

[A]t a school renowned for one of the strictest honor codes in the country, students and alumni are calling for an honor code investigation, saying Perkins not only violated a sacred promise not to lie, cheat or steal as a U.Va. student, but did so in a way harmful to actual victims of racial discrimination.

“This is a disservice to the people to whom this really happens — it makes them a lot harder to be believed,” said Florette King, a black senior at U.Va. “As a law student especially, he should know better.”

Crying wolf when there is no wolf can certainly have that effect. The uncertainty apparently prevailing as to what to do about Mr. Perkins is a bit puzzling. Under the current procedures, a student who has neither been found out nor charged with an Honor Code violation can make a conscientious retraction. To publish a lie, knowing that it is a lie, to allow it to fester for two weeks until after there has been a police investigation exposing it as a lie and then to issue a retraction claiming that it was done “for a good purpose” should not be acceptable:

This admission, however, must occur before the student gains any knowledge that someone might suspect him/her of an honor offense. A student with the integrity and courage to come forward with a good-faith retraction has thereby reaffirmed his personal commitment to honor and will be allowed to remain in the community.

To make a conscientious retraction, a student should contact an Honor Advisor immediately. After discussing the situation with an Honor Advisor, the student should submit a written statement admitting to an act of lying, cheating, or stealing. The retraction must be signed and dated by all parties affected by the dishonorable act, and the student must accept the consequences of the action as delineated by the other individuals involved.

Upon submission to the Honor Committee, the conscientious retraction will be reviewed for completeness by the Vice-Chair for Investigations and will be returned to the student for changes if necessary. The completed retraction will then be stored in a confidential Honor Committee file. This retraction will only be examined again if the investigation pertaining to the dishonorable act is reported.

Only when an investigation is begun will the validity of the conscientious retraction be determined by the Investigative Panel. If, under the standard of more likely than not, the Investigative Panel decides that the retraction was completed in good faith, the conscientious retraction can then serve as a complete defense.

Lying for a “good purpose,” as Mr. Perkins claimed in justification, does not appear to be a defense.

The University of Virginia Honor Code may well be an anomaly in our modern, post-sexual multicultural society. It should not be.  Politicians and others in public life often lie and get away with it unless caught; even when caught, the excuse that it was for a good cause is accepted by many — former President Clinton eventually admitted that he had been less than truthful about his relationship with an intern in order to avoid hurting his family; as I recall, he did so only after an analysis of stains on her blue dress had rendered denial no longer plausible. Race sharks lie to ameliorate what they perceive as injustices to “their people” (and also to enhance their own stature and fund raising ability), with little or no thought given to the consequences to “their people” or to others. Union officials? Corporate executives? Government employees? Should there be a real Honor Code at least for members of Congress? Just joking, I suppose.

“Plausible deniability” has become an important part of the political lexicon. I would be very sad to see similar mendacity become part of the University of Virginia experience. It could happen.

(This article was first published at The PJ Tatler.)

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6 Responses to “The University of Virginia Honor Code”

  1. Clarissa |

    ” Examinations were not generally monitored by faculty and, once examinations had been handed out, students were free to complete them wherever they chose. Signing the paper on which the examination answers were written constituted an affirmation that there had been no cheating.”

    -This sounds like a beautiful fairy-tale. Not because I doubt your information, of course, but because today the situation is completely different. 60% of my students handed in plagiarized or partially plagiarized essays last semester. And when I failed the cheaters, some of them had the gall to go to the dean’s office to complain that it’s unfair to be failed “just for cheating.” These were the students’ exact words “just for cheating.” I didn’t even know what to respond when I heard this.

  2. Dan Miller |

    Clarissa, please keep in mind that I was there many moons ago and that things may have changed a bit at U.Va. The situation may have come more to resemble the “real world.” I have not been back for quite a number of years and do not know.

    However, I doubt that they have changed very much. Traditions die very slowly at “Mr. Jefferson’s University” and the Honor Code is ancient.

    The Honor System is one of the prime examples of student self-governance at the University. Founded in 1842, the Honor System has flourished for more than 150 years as an entirely student-run system. Students do their part to support the system in a variety of ways, from serving as elected committee members, to reporting transgressions of it by their peers, to simply behaving with the integrity that is expected of a Virginia student.

    As a University community we ask each other to hold ourselves to an especially high standard and the system ensures that students are provided with both tangible and intangible benefits not found at most universities. Put simply, Virginia students are taken at their word in the classroom and in the community, and presumed honorable unless proven otherwise. This assumption of integrity allows students to write checks in Charlottesville using only their UVA student ID, take unproctored exams at home, on the Lawn, or wherever else they desire, and learn and live in a community where trust thrives.

    Snobbish? Elitist? Maybe, but a damn good environment nonetheless.

    Back almost a half century ago the system worked quite well; I hope and suspect that it still does. Perhaps the totally student-run nature of the Honor System — cheating could not be rationalized on the basis of antagonism toward a teacher or anticipations of immunity based on family wealth or connections — makes a difference. Perhaps the high likelihood that if another student caught one cheating, one would be forced to withdraw or be expelled very quickly and with no intervention by faculty, parents or fund raising folks makes a difference. Perhaps the quite substantial incentives of students to “rat” on their peers — flowing from the Honor Code provisions (later and to my disappointment modified in a few respects) that failure to adhere to the requirements of confrontation and, in the event of a failure of the cheater to withdraw, an omission to report the matter to the Honor Council promptly placed one’s self in jeopardy of having to withdraw — made a difference. I suspect that a combination of these and other factors has made the system work.

  3. Tom Carter |

    Looks to me like the Honor Code may not survive this one. If they take the action they very clearly must take — expel the student — the racist backlash against them will be severe. If they give the student a pass to avoid the backlash that would result from treating him like any other student, the Code simply would have no meaning any more.

  4. Dan Miller |

    Tom, I very much hope you are wrong. It has survived for a century and a half and probably has some more time left. However, if the young man is given a racial bypass, that will — and should — mean its demise.

    We probably won’t know what happened, due to the secrecy of Honor Committee proceedings; but we may.

  5. Brian |

    Rice University has a similar honor code. Unless things have changed, instructors are not even permitted to be in classrooms while examinations are in progress.

  6. Dan Miller |

    According to this article, Mr. Perkins will be graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law on May 22. Attorney General Holder will the commencement speaker.

    If Mr. Perkins is in fact permitted to graduate, the Honor Code should be declared dead.

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