A duty to honor


Lilah Kimble

Washington and Lee’s White Book, which first-years sign during orientation week each year to pledge commitment to the Honor System. The Executive Committee, which oversees honor matters, could split into two separate bodies, with one specifically dedicated to honor matters.

J.C. Ward, Jr.

As Washington and Lee University students begin classes on campus for the first time since March, there is much excitement. But, there is also significant anxiety about the safety of the campus and that of the broader Lexington-Rockbridge community, as well as the prospects of a forced quick return back home. Many students, faculty and community members with these anxieties are frustratedly looking for leadership and insurance for a safe semester. 

I say we should look no further than the student body itself and its elected leaders: the Executive Committee (EC). This is not revolutionary; it is, instead, a plea to recognize our cherished duty to honor.

There is much hesitation surrounding this option given the single sanction, but it is clear according to the white book that “The students of Washington and Lee reserve to themselves alone the authority to hold their fellow students accountable for failures of their duty of honor.” We should not allow the single sanction and the many other challenges involved to deter us from seeing breaches of the community expectations for what they are: breaches of community trust. To do otherwise is to abandon honor.

In 1905, the student body constitution was written, giving direct control over the honor system to the students. Whether the EC will intervene to treat deliberate and reckless violations of COVID-19 guidelines as honor violations has been the subject of significant scrutiny. The EC has refused to rule on this question—as they should. 

The EC released in a statement on August 30th: “given that the honor system at Washington and Lee University is not codified, the Executive Committee does not have the constitutional power to [preemptively] determine whether or not violations of the COVID-19 community guidelines will constitute honor violations.”

Honor violations are defined as: “any conduct that violates the trust of the current Washington and Lee community,” which includes students, faculty and staff. This is notably different from the sloppy, shorthand explanation of “no lying, cheating or stealing.” These words are not to be found in the white book. However, they are actions which the campus community has presumably come to define as “conduct that violates the trust of the current Washington and Lee community.”

Unless the attitudes of the campus community have significantly and tremendously changed recently, lying, cheating and stealing ought not to be tolerated and should be deemed a violation of community trust. It is very clear that when “no lying” is stated by members of the community, they are referring to deliberate lies of consequence: so, not where lying is a part of a game or considered a white lie. However, lies of consequence do truly violate the community’s trust. These may include lying to authority or perhaps failing to fulfill a signed and acknowledged agreement.

To violate the agreed-to Statement of Community Expectations is to lie. To lie is to break the community’s trust. Agreeing to the expectations, but then not doing one’s best to fulfill them is a lie. Better yet, to agree to the expectations and then engage in deliberative action in direct contradiction to them is to lie. To select a box—as every student on campus has—reading “I Acknowledge” on the statement of community expectations and then to abandon its affirmations is to breach community trust.

These are lies of consequence. Failure to adhere to these expectations will likely have grave, fatal consequences for many of those in the campus community but also the broader Lexington-Rockbridge area with its high population of high-risk, senior citizens. And in case these altruistic consequences do not resonate with your non-immunocompromised sensibilities, failure to follow these Expectations will result in all of the university’s students being asked to leave campus. 

To the latter concern the white book states, that “any action rising to the level of a breach of the community’s trust weakens the bonds that unite the university community and jeopardizes the privileges the honor system affords to students at Washington and Lee.” This statement could never be truer when these breaches of community trust will lead to the forced, necessary vacation of campus once again. Being sent back home will once more weaken bonds that unite the university community and will undoubtedly jeopardize the privileges afforded to us by the honor system.  

I am not advocating for a new, radical understanding of community trust, but rather pleading with students to recommit themselves to our previously established view and apply it properly to these circumstances without excuse or hesitation.

Given the common understanding that students have all agreed to the community expectations, to violate them is also to violate community trust in its own right. We show up to class and stay on campus under the common understanding that everyone else on campus is following best practices on and off of campus. The decision to return to campus for most students is reliant upon the understanding of a safe campus and fellow students’ dedication to keep the campus safe. 

The case has never been clearer: deliberate violations of the agreed-to statement of community Expectations regarding COVID guidelines ought to be considered an honor violation, and almost any attempt to suggest the contrary abandons honor. 

Any disagreement with this assessment is founded on unrelated and inexcusable concerns. It is abundantly clear that these actions ought to be dealt with as honor violations based on my understanding of  the university’s community of trust. Resistance to this view is almost always rooted in frustration with the single sanction—the only sanction for honor violations, which results in withdrawal from the university.

There is an extremely worrying confusion among the campus community as to what constitutes an honor violation. Conversations concerning what should be an honor violation incorrectly revolve around what we think ought to warrant withdrawal from the university. This understanding of an honor violation is patently incorrect and deeply problematic to our execution of the system. We must not allow the single sanction to define and constrict our understanding of community trust and honor.  To equate these questions of community trust and withdrawal is to the detriment of them both.

I am not advocating here for the withdrawal of students who violate these expectations, but rather making the simple case that violations of these expectations are violations of community trust as well. If you reject this argument for reasons related to the single sanction, then your issue is with the honor system—namely the single sanction—not this argument. 

As mentioned before, this system is ours as the student body and we must take ownership and responsibility for it. If the single sanction is a barrier to the honor system being applied with full veracity, perhaps we as a student body should evaluate its impact. The single sanction tends to confuse our understanding of community trust and likely discourages reporting clear violations of that trust.

If you take issue with the single sanction or anything regarding the white book, please consider applying to serve on the white book review committee this year, which is to be appointed by October 1. This committee is a chance for us, as the student body, to thoroughly examine the white book and formally raise issues and concerns to the EC about it. That being said, we must not allow the single sanction to be cause for abandoning honor.

It is our role as members of the university community to inform the Executive Committee’s understanding of community trust indirectly through communication—such as this—but most directly through reporting honor violations. The white book makes this clear by saying “the student body defines the parameters of the honor system by choosing what to, and what not to, report.” 

The EC has echoed this principle by saying in their statement: “the responsibility to uphold the Honor system falls on the entirety of the student body. Students and other members of our community may bring any behavior they feel is a violation of their trust to the Executive Committee.” It must be noted, however, to let the EC know your trust, along with the community’s trust, has been violated is not indicative of agreement with the single sanction. 

I implore students and other members of the community of trust to not abandon their value of honor, but instead to rise to the occasion and consistently commit ourselves to this ethic, especially when the costs are so high. And to the Executive Committee, I beg of you to listen to students with urgency and vigor and to not let the challenges associated with treating these matters as honor violations deter your duty to enforce the honor system.