What actually is the Honor System?

A take on Washington and Lee’s notorious honor system

Jess Kishbaugh

I planned to write an opinion piece on the Honor System here at Washington and Lee University weeks ago. But when I sat down to write it, I had an incredibly difficult time figuring out what to say and how to say it. Should I ask other students what they think? Should I read the whole White Book over again? But I feel like for something so important to the fabric of this university, I should be able to come up with an articulate opinion without a lot of research. Shouldn’t we all have enough knowledge of the system which can expel us to have an opinion?

When I thought about that, though, I realized that I don’t know enough. I don’t understand the inner workings of the Executive Committee and I don’t understand the process that could be used to expel me or any of my classmates. And that’s a problem.

This isn’t for lack of trying. During first-year orientation, there’s a whole scary meeting about how easy it is to get expelled (at least that’s what it felt like to me). Regardless, there is an attempt made to educate the student body. But that isn’t quite enough. A single, hour-long session during orientation week where everyone is too overwhelmed to take anything in isn’t enough to make us understand. But we need to understand. 

Even if you want to try to refresh your memory on the information, the Honor System webpage only has the full White Book legislative jargon. It doesn’t have any of the helpful diagrams used during the first-year presentation (at least none that I could find).

As of the October Honor Posting, there were four investigations. That’s four students who probably didn’t quite understand what the next steps were going to be. I know there are Hearing Advisors and (I think?) that’s their job, to counsel you through your investigation, but shouldn’t we have a greater understanding before then?

Even what constitutes an honor violation is vague. I know that’s intentional and the whole point is that it’s uncodified, but it makes the initial education stage of the system so much worse. There are no rules to follow other than “don’t violate the trust of the community,” but as first-years no one knew what that meant yet. We were all completely fresh to the community.

Maybe it’s just me who doesn’t understand the hearing process. But if it’s not just me (and I’m guessing it’s not), then something needs to change. The Honor System is intentionally vague, complex, and only offers one punishment: expulsion. This mix isn’t something that you drop once and expect everyone to remember.  To wrap up, the Honor System needs to have a more accessible online presence. No one wants to have to read the entire White Book when they have a question.