A look at the Honor System: what is it and who is it for?

Kelly Swanson

Correction: As of Mar. 1, there have been seven closed hearings this academic year, not 14 as printed in the original story in issue 16, published Mar. 7.


“If you believe that demanding each student to be honest in every situation is too much to ask, then our tradition and our school are not for you, and consequently, you are to leave this university now.”

That’s the line in Executive Committee President Mason Grist’s speech to first-year students that is meant to serve as an out for newcomers to Washington and Lee’s campus who may not have previously realized what they were signing up for.

At the beginning of every academic year, freshmen and first-year law students nervously look over their shoulders to see if any of their peers will choose to leave Lee Chapel during the EC president’s annual speech.

W&L’s iconic honor system draws students from around the country, setting a blanket standard for undergraduate and law students alike. In one of their first decisions as W&L students, first-years of both schools sign the pledge to adhere to the system’s White Book.

This intentionally vague governing document serves as more of a guide than a rulebook, though the single-sanction system outlined is meant to be strictly upheld by two very different bodies of students.

Grist said the orientation week address in Lee Chapel is the first taste new students get of the seriousness of W&L’s honor system.

“You may hear about the honor system on a tour, but the silent moment in that speech is the first time you are like ‘OK, this is real and they take this very seriously,’” Grist said.

He joked that the moment wasn’t all that comfortable for him either.

“I literally counted to 30 in my head because it seems like such a long time, and I didn’t want to start talking too quickly,” Grist said.

The silence in the speech has been ingrained in many minds of alumni who, Grist said, tell him that the honor system orientation speech is what they consider the true beginning of their W&L careers.

A system versus a code

As memorable as that speech is to many, the seven closed hearings held this academic year alone suggest the system may not be as clear as some think.

“I feel as though maybe 95 percent of the student population doesn’t actually understand how the system works,” said Bob Shinehouse, ‘16, who for three years has served as a hearing advisor, a position independent of the EC that provides representation to students accused of violating the honor system.

At the forefront of the honor system is that it exists as a system, rather than a code, an element often misunderstood by many students, said Bren Flanigan, ‘16, who is head of the hearing advisor program and has served as a hearing advisor for three years.

“The main difference between a system and a code is that a code is codified, which means it lists out the infractions that would get a student in trouble—lying, cheating, stealing, that sort of thing,” Mary Page Welch, ‘18, an EC representative serving her first year on the committee, said.

W&L, on the other hand, has an honor system in which violations are dependent upon the current EC’s perception of what constitutes a breach of trust.

According to the White Book, “Each new generation of students defines the Honor System by its actions and the behavior it deems dishonorable. At Washington and Lee, dishonorable conduct is not codified; rather, 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.”

Still, many students believe that lying, cheating, and stealing are the only three actions that could warrant an expulsion from the EC’s single-sanction honor system, said Welch.

“I think all this language about lying, cheating, and stealing obscures things in an unhelpful way,” Philosophy and Law Professor Melina Bell, who teaches a course on honor and ethics at W&L, said. “Many students that I talk to think those three are it, that’s the honor system, and I think that’s really confusing.”

The EC exercises considerable power when determining whether an accused student is guilty of committing an honor violation.

“We have a system that is difficult logistically to convey an entire level of understanding,” Flanigan said. “That’s why the EC is designed to represent and interpret each issue on behalf of the student body in terms of what constitutes a violation.”

The process begins with an individual student, professor or community member, who must decide whether a student’s action warrants attention from the EC. If a case is brought to an EC member, the president of the EC compiles an investigative team tasked with researching the details of the event.

When presented with the material gathered during the investigation process, the EC then votes on whether or not there is sufficient evidence to hold a closed hearing.

“Sometimes my friends will give me hypotheticals and ask me if that’s an honor violation, and I’m like, ‘Well I can’t answer that because I’m not the one who interprets the honor system,” Flanigan said.

Grist said it is difficult to put into words exactly what could be considered a violation of the community’s trust.

“If you talked to all 13 members of the EC, you might get 13 different answers,” Grist said.

The lack of guidelines or precedent in the honor system can be scary for some students, Bell said.

“What the EC doesn’t want to say is ‘such and such would be an honor violation.’ They don’t want to do it hypothetically like that. It would be nice for students to have a better idea of what is expected of them in concrete terms I think,” Bell said.

Meg Pascale, ‘16, said that with every new professor she worries that the threshold for what he or she would turn into the EC might be different.

“I get worried that they might have different rules for citations or something that I wouldn’t necessarily know that they would consider it an honor violation when others would not,” Pascale said.

Bell said she also worries about how the EC members interpret the vagueness of the standard of what constitutes an honor violation.

“It’s so vague, it could mean so many things to so many different people that I think we might be inclined, without even realizing it, to apply it one way to friends or people we see like us, and another way to people we see as outsiders,” Bell said.

Two worlds collide

There’s no group more removed from the undergraduate student body than the 400 law students on the other side of campus. Although located physically near one another, the two schools rarely interact.

But both bodies share the same White Book, the same honor system and the same EC. Three law students also serve on the EC, representing each class of the law school, as well as the secretary, who is also a law school student.

Third-year law student and EC Secretary Alex Eichenbaum describes herself as a “double General,” after attending both the undergraduate college and the law school. As an undergraduate, she said she almost never interacted with law students and recognizes that there exists a divide between the two schools.

“In my class there are about 93 of us and we range in age from 22, and the oldest person in my class is like 36,” Eichenbaum said. “There are people from all walks of life and all different college experiences, so having people from such a variety of backgrounds certainly makes it different from the undergrad.”

Additionally, Eichenbaum pointed out that the consequences for a law student found guilty of an honor violation are more severe than that of undergraduates.

“The single sanction, while it is a huge deal [as an] undergrad, is almost an even bigger deal in the law school,” Eichenbaum said. “You can’t transfer, you have to disclose that to the bar, and there’s a chance you could not pass the bar because of it, so the stakes are really high.”

But at the end of the day, do both groups of students share an idea of what violates the community’s trust? Will they agree on the different lifestyles that play a part in the situational details that make up each case?

“I assume they’re honorable students as well, but our cultures are so different that I think it could play an important role in understanding the situation at hand,” Emma Whittemore, ‘16, said.

Flanigan said the culture differences between the two schools can create confusion in EC hearings.

“I think the real stressor with having law school representation on the EC comes when you have an undergraduate that has an offense that a law student might not be familiar with or vice versa,” Flanigan said.

But Flanigan also said that this has yet to pose a problem in a case in which he has been involved.

“In my experience, no, there has not been an instance where a student has felt uncomfortable about having a representative from the other school [undergraduate or law] hear their case,” Flanigan said.

1 EC, 2 perspectives

Eichenbaum said that the mixed makeup of the EC is another way the committee aims to hear different perspectives.

“The law students can see things that the undergrads don’t, and the undergrads see things that we don’t,” Eichenbaum said.

Flanigan added that the hearing advising program helps contextualize the undergraduate or law school culture in a way that helps EC members of both schools understand the specific details of the case.

“If I were to represent a law student, I might not understand what they are being charged with, so in our initial meetings I can ask the right questions to get that information,” Flanigan said. “Then I make sure I ask those questions [in a hearing] so that the majority undergraduate executive committee is also on the same page.”

If a student didn’t feel comfortable about having a member from the opposite school hear their case, Flanigan said the hearing advisors and the EC search for a compromise.

“We [hearing advisors] would work with the EC president similar to the way that a defense attorney would work with a judge by voicing those concerns, and I’d be confident that we would arrive at an agreeable solution,” Flanigan said.

Separating the EC into two bodies between the undergraduate college and the law school would create two standards that may not live up to the high level of student accountability that W&L is known for, Eichenbaum said.

“If you separated the ECs, I don’t think you would see a lot of reporting in the law school,” Eichenbaum said. “I don’t think that you would have a lot of cases quite frankly because I don’t think that people in the law school would trust three law students alone to deal with it.”

Grist said he thinks the combined EC works best and is here to stay.

“I think that it is really important that we are all held to the same standard, because at the end of the day, all 2,200 of us are graduating with a W&L degree.”