The Honor System: a failure in self-governance

Aliya Gibbons, Staff Writer

Washington and Lee University is known for its Honor System. It is a main selling point for its campus tours, Zoom information sessions and accepted students’ days. If you ask around, some students say they love the Honor System. They praise it for the ability to have take-home tests and to leave their belongings without fear of them being stolen. For those students, the Honor System was a big reason why they chose Washington and Lee. This surface-level take that is presented to prospective students was all I knew about the Honor System when I arrived on campus in late August for my pre-orientation trip. Very quickly, I became disillusioned…  

It started with my first-year orientation week, when the first-year class dressed up in business casual attire and were brought to University Chapel to hear the Executive Committee (EC), the student governing and judicial body of the Honor System, speak. This year’s Honor System orientation began with a student reading President Dudley’s opening remarks as he was ill and unable to attend. The student noted that after his speech, President Dudley would exit the Chapel — leaving only students — to symbolize the administration’s faith in a fully student-run government. Although the concept and gesture were touching, it drew me up short. I could not help but wonder, if there is truly no administrative intervention in the Honor System process, who checks the power of the Executive Committee? If a student had a serious grievance against the EC, where would that student go with their complaint? The answer, as I have come to find out, is nowhere.  

After President Dudley’s opening remarks, the president of the Executive Committee, James Torbert, ’23, stepped to the podium. At the end of a long-winded and frankly confusing speech that attempted to outline the Honor System, the president paused, giving the opportunity to any student who felt they could not uphold the standard set by the Honor System to leave the Chapel and withdraw from the University. This is a decision we were supposed to make without fully understanding what the Honor System is, and one we must make after we already are here, after we rejected all our other college offers and paid our tuition, room and board. This pause is supposed to be symbolic, but it just reads as an empty gesture, with the thinly veiled threat of a single-sanction system hanging over us — if you step even a foot out of line, you are out. 

Afterwards, we were broken up into groups to ask questions to an Executive Committee member before being tasked with signing the book, pledging ourselves to upholding the system. I asked questions about accountability, inclusion and checks on the EC, and was left with completely unsatisfying answers. The gist of the response to my questions was, “trust us,” which is exactly what you do not want to hear from a governing body. What I know about the Honor System comes directly from my understanding of reading the White Book (the “constitution” of the Honor System), and I can tell you that there is so much in the White Book that is not touched on nor explained in the speech from the president of the EC or by its members. 

After the Honor System orientation, we walked away with confusion and key misunderstandings about the principle governing system in our school, and we pledged to uphold it with a signature. The White Book clearly states that ignorance of the system will not be accepted as a valid defense against Honor charges, yet so few students fully understand it. 

What this orientation experience did teach me is that the Honor System is not designed to work. Self-governance requires a very delicate balancing act between the power of the representative government and a well-informed electorate. The Honor System fails at this. 

After the orientation, I read the White Book in its entirety. A plain text reading of the White Book shows that there are no systems in place that even attempt to strike this balance. The EC holds virtually all the power in this system; the EC alone decides what constitutes an honor violation, what is reasonable proof to find someone guilty, and whether there is reasonable suspicion to take a complaint to trial. With an uncodified system, the EC can single-handedly decide how, as the White Book puts it, this “generation of students defines the Honor System” by determining what “behavior it deems dishonorable.” 

The only power the student body has is our right to vote for the committee members. However, these elected representatives do not campaign on a platform around the Honor System, but on issues that are related to the other aspects of their jobs. Once we elect our representatives with virtually no understanding of how they will “define” the Honor System, we relinquish our only power. We can see the impact the EC makes in other respects, in the other facets of their job (the many roles that the EC plays can be seen as a problem within itself) but, with no transparency in the Honor System, when reelection occurs, we have no idea how well our representative did in upholding how we want the Honor System to be defined. Students run publicly, the student body votes, the doors of the EC close, and the EC’s power goes completely unchecked. 

 Aside from the Honor orientation, the most glaring problem that I have seen since arriving on campus is that the vast majority of students have no faith in the system. It is shocking how often it is brought up, and even more shocking how often it is brought up as a part of a punchline (every time). I have overheard comments from students from all walks of campus life in criticism of the Honor System: it’s a joke, no one follows it, I don’t trust it any further than not having my water bottle stolen. When I ask students directly, the answer is almost unanimous: it does not work. Some students cheat, others do not, no one snitches, and (almost) no one gets caught. 

With whispers of other students cheating, and no way to know if there are genuine consequences being given out, why would students remain faithful to the system? This is a campus of high-achieving students; we got here by being some of the best and we hate to feel like other students are getting an advantage over us. It’s naive of us to think that students, including the EC, will not work the system to their advantage. We should have faith that the EC is fair, but we should be able to have the power within the system to ensure it. 

This is not to say that the Honor System should be abolished, because it does have its purpose on campus despite its flaws. Students here have the privilege to take tests unproctored and in a manner that best suits each student’s individual needs. We can leave our possessions unattended in public places without fear of them being stolen — a perk I have found particularly useful due to the fact that I have lost my water bottle three times in the one month I have been here and found it every time in the exact spot where I left it. The Honor System does progress the campus culture towards honesty, integrity and trustworthiness, but it is not without its faults. A fully-functioning self-governing system, one that not only has the trust of the student body but has truly earned that trust, can go a long way towards building a community that is so much more than unproctored tests and lost items being found. The Honor System can be great, it is just not there yet.