The investigation process: the Phi weighs in

Ring-tum Phi Staff

In reading this week’s article, ‘The investigation process: An honor violation accusation,’ on the Executive Committee’s investigative process, most students will be struck by the amount of sheer discretionary power wielded by the president of the Executive Committee in regards to this most essential aspect of the EC’s duties. Mason Grist ’18, the current president of the EC, seems to understand this, though he doesn’t admit it.

“The president sort of acts as a mediator essentially,” Grist says.

True, but he also acts as the arbiter of Executive Committee fiat, as the man behind the curtain pulling the strings and making the whole thing work, as a czar of sorts.

In reading the section of the White Book regarding investigations, this power becomes crystal clear. After being informed of a potential honor violation, the president initiates the investigation process and influences the makeup of the investigation team. It is at the president’s “discretion” as to whether the investigators will contact the accused student. It is also at the president’s  “discretion” as to whether the accused will be provided with a hearing advisor. All in all, the president is not a part of the investigative team, but he or she is responsible for overseeing the investigation and ensuring the “fairness” of the process.

What the White Book doesn’t say also contributes to the president’s discretionary power.

After the investigative team presents its findings to the EC, the entire team, including the EC member on the team, is excused from deliberations on whether to advance to a closed hearing. Obviously, that EC member knows the identity of the accused student and would be biased. It makes sense for that member to be automatically recused from deliberations.

But the president also knows the identity of the accused student, and the White Book makes no stipulations on how that issue should be addressed. Grist says it shouldn’t matter.

“Knowing the real name or not knowing the real name is not going to influence the president’s decision,” Grist says in the article. “If it did then I think the president would probably recuse him or herself before that time anyway.”

That’s a lot of faith placed in the judgment of the president. Knowing the name of the accused will certainly play a role in the thinking of the president. How can it not? At Washington and Lee, greek affiliation, major and class rank are just a few of the ways we categorize ourselves. No one is immune to the preconceived notions that accompany such categorization. The president of the student body would understand this more than anyone. The question, then, is whether the president’s decision will be affected by this unavoidable bias. The White Book doesn’t think so. But how can we be so sure?

Clearly, the White Book gives the president tremendous discretionary power, and it places tremendous faith in his or her fair exercise of this power.

Should this be revised and improved to make our system more trustworthy? The simple answer is yes. Our Honor System is far bigger than one student. But currently, some key aspects of the system are delegated to the discretion of one student. There needs to be a strong president who can guide the system in the right direction. Governance by committee is one of the most ineffective systems that can exist. But no student can realistically be the all-knowing but unbiased arbiter of power that the White Book expects the president to be.

Changes to the White Book come only periodically, so a more realistic takeaway is this: take EC elections seriously. We can’t let them turn into popularity contests. In particular, the election of the EC president should be considered carefully and earnestly. It’s a serious job that requires extreme prudence. For our Honor System to work, we as regular students must step up to the plate.