A system vs. a code: the Phi weighs in

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.


Ask any Washington and Lee student, and they’ll vividly recall the hushed silence that fell over Lee Chapel during their first-year orientation as the Executive Committee President asked anyone to leave if they couldn’t abide by the Honor System.

Prior to this moment, most Washington and Lee students understand that the Honor System is important to the university community. But it’s this particular silence in Lee Chapel that truly opens our eyes to how vital the Honor System will be for the remainder of our four years here.

While the seriousness hopefully isn’t lost on any first-year student at this time, one major aspect of the Honor System that seems to be quickly misunderstood is the significance of having an honor system, rather than an honor code.

Whether a first-year or a senior, many students at W&L mistakenly interchange the word code for system. What’s more is that many think very little of the distinction between the two—yet there’s a big difference.

As described in Kelly Swanson’s article, “A look at the Honor System: what it is and who it’s for,” the main distinction between a system and a code is that a code specifies any possible violations, while a system does not. In our system, it is at the discretion—a word used 25 different times in the White Book—of the 13 representatives of the EC to determine what, on a case by case basis, constitutes an honor violation.

It is up to these 13 students, a combination of representatives from both the undergraduate university and the law school, to determine whether a particular act has “violated the community’s trust.” This difference should allow our Honor System to adapt to each new generation of W&L students, while remaining grounded in a timeless concept of honor.

Though it is important to have a system that does not require frequent revision, the term ‘discretion’ creates grey areas, and it is up to only 13 of the more than 2,000 students at W&L to rule on these situations.

As we know, the student body elects each member of the EC. Even if these people are elected by their fellow students, can we be fully confident that a group this size (about .006 percent of the student population) accurately represents the current generation of students? Each time a case comes across their desks, they are supposedly acting as an extension of the student body’s interests.

Can a group of 13 adequately represent the diverse set of perspectives that are present at W&L? Can a group of 13 think critically enough to carry out their duties in a manner that continues to embody Robert E. Lee’s message that every student act as a gentleman or gentlewoman?

These challenging questions are necessary to ask of the extremely demanding job of the EC. When we make our EC selections on Sakai, we as voters must realize the power we are giving to our fellow students.

We believe that the overall student body should have a larger say in the EC’s honor violation decisions because 13 people are simply not enough to represent the interests and opinions of over 2,000 individuals. If we are meant to abide by a system so rooted in ambiguity and discretion—a system that has the potential to cause expulsion—it is reasonable to ask for a little more clarity and involvement.

Despite the constant confusion among the student body as to what may violate the community’s trust, the chance to participate in this system as a Washington and Lee student presents an important learning opportunity.

A system, rather than a code, pushes us to consciously think about everything we say and do. In place of written rules, we’re given a general sense of how to lead our lives both as honorable students and honorable citizens.

Unfortunately, though, the sheer number of open and closed hearings in the past few years—seven closed hearings this academic year alone—shows that maybe too many students don’t comprehend all that our Honor System encompases, or sadly, don’t really care.

This ambiguity has two very different effects. First, it can lead to a number of expulsions and withdrawals from the university, some of which are fair and others unwarranted. Second, it can lead to abuse: students take advantage of the system because they assume that its vagueness can protect them from getting caught, or at the very least, proven guilty of, committing an honor violation.

It should be an honor and a privilege to be a part of a system that holds us all accountable for our own actions, but there is a common worry among students over these consequences.

No one can guarantee that a system will be perfect. There will always be issues, some of which can’t be resolved without dismantling an important benefit of that system. However, that does not mean we should shy away from critical conversations about what these problems are and how they might be improved upon.

As our motto suggests, we at Washington and Lee are “not unmindful of the future.” Our Honor System should be no different. Our system should prepare us for the real world far more than any code of conduct. It should teach us that success isn’t just about adhering to a certain set of arbitrary rules. Rather, success is about leading an ethical, moral and principled life no matter who’s watching, no matter what the rulebook says.

If the system actually teaches these lessons, why do hearings happen so frequently? Perhaps it is because of the lack of clarity the system purposefully keeps. Or maybe it’s because of the level of ‘discretion’ the system affords to a small group of leaders. Or it could be an indication that some Washington and Lee students are unmindful of the future and don’t realize their actions have consequences. While it is impossible to pinpoint a single issue, these are all possible explanations that both the EC and student body need to consider for themselves. For a system aimed at being timeless, it is always important to stop and ask questions.