The importance of honor at the heart of the Alumni Association roundtable
Earlier this month, the University of Virginia’s honor system saw perhaps the most significant overhaul in its history when students voted to change the system’s one-time expulsion sentence for a honor violation, replacing it with a two-semester suspension.
On Wednesday afternoon, President Jim Ryan participated in a virtual chat with past and current Honorary Committee Chairs to talk about this change and the future of Honor at AVU, as part of an ongoing effort to help students learn more about the honor system and its importance to the University.
“From many conversations with alumni, I know that the honor system was – and remains – one of the defining characteristics of their time here, and it has continued to shape their lives since leaving Grounds,” said Ryan at the start of a 45 minutes. event organized by the AVU Alumni Association.
“I also know from many conversations with students that the honor code remains important to them. Regardless of their views on the honor system, including sanctions, the students I’ve spoken to – and I’ve spoken to many – follow the honor code and appreciate what it means to live in a trusted community.
AVU’s honor system dates back to 1842 and is based on a simple pledge that students make not to lie, cheat, or steal. The system is entirely student-run, with elected student representatives comprising the honor committee and students serving as officers investigating and administering cases, as well as jurors in honor trials.
While reiterating remarks he made at the recent Board of Visitors meeting where he said if he had been a student he would have voted against the change, Ryan said his only disappointment was that only About 25% of the students had voted.
“The honor system is run by and for our students, and they have the right to change it,” Ryan said. “The fact that they did may worry some, but accepting student autonomy means accepting that students make decisions that their elders would not have made.
Overall, Ryan said he expects the change to “reinvigorate” the honor system.
“The heart of the honor system is not the sanction but the honor code,” Ryan said. “And the honor system works better – and becomes a way of life – when students internalize the honor code. Sanctions encourage students to pay attention to the honor code, but I believe that during their time here, students can and do learn to appreciate what it means to live in a community of trust, and they come to see the value of living their lives honorably.
Read Ryan’s full remarks.
In results announced March 5, about 80% of the 6,000 students who voted on the honor system proposal were in favor of the change.
Andy Chambers, the current honorary chairman, opposed the amendment because he believed more comprehensive reform was needed.
“The honor committee, and this is no stranger to most presidents, has its own set of issues and we’re always trying to sort them out and improve,” Chambers said. “I think this, at its best, ignored all those issues and did nothing. And on average, or worse, that would be net harm to the system. »
Donna Byrd said reform needed to go further when it comes to students who have committed honor violations.
“If there’s going to be a change in the system, there has to be something in place where students have to acknowledge they’ve done something wrong before being readmitted back into the community,” said Byrd, who was president during the 1991-92 academic year and is now founder and CEO of digital startup bluebutterfly.com. “There has to be some kind of conversation, some kind of acknowledgment that they did something wrong and that they plan to be better or do better by reentering the community.”
Alumnus Richard Gard, who served as the event’s moderator, pointed out that at least some type of action was finally taken.
“We spent 50 years dithering over reforms and nothing ever happened,” said Gard, vice president of communications for the Alumni Association and editor of Virginia Magazine. “This time, in a really dramatic way, something happened. So maybe that will spur the further reforms the sponsors are considering, and encourage them as well.
Thomas Hall said that during his student days he was something of an “absolutist” when it came to the single sanction, which he said set UVA apart from other universities.
However, Hall — who served as honorary chairman from 2000 to 2002 and is now vice president and senior associate general counsel at Capital One — said his views have softened over the years.
“I think a core concept about single sanction and student autonomy is that it’s important that the student body have the opportunity to vote on single sanction every three or four years,” Hall said.
“In my seven years at the University, I think there have been at least two single sanction votes, and I think that’s important from a membership perspective to make sure that current students have had their say.”
Towards the end of the discussion, participants discussed the impact the honor system has had on their lives.
“It stays at the core of who I am and how I choose to live my life,” Byrd said. “And I believe that the focus over those four years on the system and the ideals of the system made a difference in who I grew up during that time at the University, and ultimately who I continued to grow. [to] to be like an adult since he left.
Lillie Lyon, the honorary chair for the 2019-2020 academic year who is now a strategic communications associate at SKDK, echoed Byrd’s sentiment.
“I like to say the first thing I learned at UVA was the importance of integrity, and that’s a big part of all the decisions I make on a daily basis, a big part of why where I am in work who I am now where I work with advocacy organizations to push for policy change, because I wanted my career to reflect my values.
“The first question I ask myself when something comes up is, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ and everything flows from it. And this is something that is absolutely essential to UVA education. I think that’s something really special and unique about UVA.
Hall said the honor system engenders an “automatic trust” in students that extends far beyond their time on Grounds. He said that during his time as a prosecutor in the Department of Justice, he realized how important the values he instilled were.
“I’ve always described the crimes I’ve been prosecuting as essentially apolitical because no one wants people stealing money from grandmothers in Ponzi schemes or tricking people with money through mortgage or other fraud schemes,” Hall said.
“I think [prosecuting] just underscored the universality of the value of the honor system in our society at large.
Jimmy Fang, who served as honorary chair during the 1994-95 academic year, said it’s through the honor system that he feels an instant connection with anyone at UVA he meets. .
“It’s this community of people who have shared value,” said Fang, now a managing partner at C&F Enterprises, a textile manufacturing company.
“These shared values may evolve somewhat or have changes over time as to the standards regarding the system, but there is this basis of something that we agree on. So when I meet someone else from UVA, you start from a point that is more important than another random person.