The state of the honor system during remote learning

The transition to online classes brings up questions about the honor system


The Executive Committee white book for the 2018-19 academic year. Photo by Hannah Denham, ’20.

Kristen Xu

Washington and Lee’s student-governed honor system is described on the school website as an “all-encompassing system of trust.”

It allows students to take unproctored, self-scheduled exams, to leave their dorm rooms unlocked and to leave their belongings unsupervised in the library.

But with the recent shift to online learning, some students wonder whether the honor system remains as effective as it was on campus.

“I have faith that the student body as a whole is conducting their virtual learning activities with honor and integrity,” said newly elected Executive Committee President Chase Calhoun, ‘21.

The 2020-2021 Executive Committee held a meeting on Monday, May 4 discussing the honor system, he said.

“The honor system really does influence everything we do as students and as members of the Washington Lee community,” Calhoun said. “Because it’s so influential to our daily lives, it is so incredibly worth protecting and upholding.”

Not all students share Calhoun’s trust in the honor system during virtual learning. Henry Barden, ‘23, said he believes that there will always be a number of people who don’t follow the honor system, whether students are on campus or not. With less restrictive measures in place, Barden said he thinks that group of students will “surely increase.”

“You are, in large part, totally free of supervision when you do your work. You have even more opportunities to break the honor system should you decide to,” Barden said. “But that’s not the fault of the honor system, that’s the fault of the person committing the violation.”

If honor violations are discovered, they will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, Calhoun said. Some circumstances could require a virtual honor proceeding.

“Ideally the Executive Committee does not want to put the student through the stress of a virtual honor proceeding. The EC is exploring options as to how to conduct those proceedings if we needed to, but the overall goal remains ensuring that the system is upheld and the students involved in potential honor matters are [looked after],” Calhoun said. “This is a stressful time. We want to do everything possible to ensure that we’re looking out for the student body as a whole, even those students who may be involved in an honor proceeding.”

One of the new Executive Committee’s goals is to draw more attention to the honor systems and its benefits. But some students believe there’s not much they can do to further enforce the honor system with virtual classes.

“I really don’t think there is much that can be done. But luckily this is hopefully only a one-time thing that won’t happen again,” Jess Markley, ‘23, said. “There’s unfortunately not much that can be done except trust that people are going to be honest about it.”

The incentive for following the honor system comes from the benefits it provides, Calhoun said. Due to its integration into Washington and Lee’s campus culture, many believe it is crucial to life both on and off campus as students.

“Honor in conducting daily life activities can influence not only the lives of the students but the community as a whole,” Calhoun said. “Professors give us liberties that a lot of students in a lot of schools can’t have because they don’t have this level of trust that we maintain between students and professors of Washington and Lee. This aura of honor and integrity is present on our campus in a way that is extremely unique when compared to other colleges and universities.”