I want to start by saying that I have great respect for anyone willing to spend the time reflecting on, writing and discussing the Honor System. Kat Oakley’s article in The Vigil in January is what I hope is a large step forward in encouraging more insightful discussions on the Honor System, a subject that, unfortunately, is almost taboo here at Washington and Lee University.
The biggest item to address is first noted in her second paragraph where she defines an honor violation as “lying, cheating or stealing.” She does validate this by saying it is the “definition we most often hear.” However, this definition is a mischaracterization of the Honor System. I encourage everyone to read pages two through five of the White Book, at the least (there is a digital version online on the university website).
On page two, the White Book states, “The Honor System is based upon the principle that any action deemed a breach of the community’s trust will be considered an honor violation.” To be clear, you will not find the words, “lying,” “cheating” or “stealing” in the White Book.
This also gets to Oakley’s second point: “There are many other things [than lying, cheating or stealing] that should count as HVs that are never (to my knowledge) pursued as such.” This speaks to the common misunderstanding that only actions historically thought of as potential honor violations may be presented to the Executive Committee. However, there is nothing stopping anyone from bringing forth any accusation of a potential honor violation. Our Honor System is not codified because what counts as an honor violation for this generation of students won’t necessarily be the same as what was considered as such in the past and future.
And for the same reason, the Executive Committee doesn’t take precedent into account.
Additionally, any act of lying, cheating or stealing does not necessarily constitute an Honor Violation. An honor violation is an act that is egregious enough to violate the trust you have placed in that person as a member of our community. There is a higher standard of trust at this university, but this does not mean that anything that might be seen as wrongdoing will be seen as a violation of the community’s trust. A common example I like to use when explaining this is if I ask someone out on a date to lunch, and that person tells me that they can’t because they already have plans but don’t actually have plans – therefore lying – my trust wouldn’t necessarily be violated just because that person didn’t have the courage to tell me that said person didn’t want to go on a date with me (this is not to say it wouldn’t violate someone else’s trust).
On her next point in the same paragraph, Oakley states that she thinks that “acts that fall under Title IX” should be considered honor violations. While I agree with that statement, Title IX violations do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Executive Committee. However, there is a reason that students are not allowed on the Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Board and a reason why it is inappropriate for the EC to hear Title IX cases. For a guilty verdict to be reached, the act itself must first be proven, and when it comes to the worst violations of Title IX, that is not something that should be proven in front a group of students with no administrative oversight. It is important to note that a more appropriate body, the HSMB, already exists, and bringing this to the EC would be a redundancy. I know people are frustrated with the lack of sanctions placed on those who have committed sexual assault. But it should not fall on the Executive Committee to do the job of a different administrative body.
Beyond this, Title IX has procedural requirements that are not given in the White Book. For instance, the White Book entails a decision must be reached beyond a reasonable doubt, but that is legally not allowed for Title IX. Title IX is only allowed to use a preponderance of the evidence or clear and convincing evidence. Also, the White Book does not grant an advisor to people who bring forward potential honor violations, but federal law requires this for Title IX investigations. And maybe most importantly, the rights afforded by the Honor System fall largely on respondents/accused persons, but in Title IX cases equal rights are required for the respondent(s). In short, the Honor System is not set up to comply with Title IX laws.
As for the “extreme violations,” “such as racism, homophobia, assault and other forms of violence,” any student is welcome to bring these to the Executive Committee. There is also an administrative process for dealing with this (see “University Policy on Prohibited Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation Other Than Sex”), although that does not, as far as I am aware, have the same legal conflicts.
This is by no means a full response, and I hope conversations on these topics continue. I encourage everyone on campus to continue to discuss the Honor System, no matter your stance on any part of it.