Should we trust the Honor System?

Studies show racial bias in honor systems nationwide. Can ours be any different?


Lilah Kimble

Honor systems are shown to decrease cheating at colleges. But they also disproportionately punish students of color.

Aliya Gibbons, Staff Writer

The virtue of honor codes has long been disputed on college campuses across the United States. In 1925, Harvard students rejected the proposal of an honor system, as a New York Times article from 1928 reported. In the same year, Yale students convinced the administration to get rid of the system because it was “impossible to enforce under present social and educational conditions,” and students at Amherst College elected to go back to proctorship, saying that they were indifferent to the rules of the system. 

In the same article, Dr. Henry Louis Smith, Washington and Lee’s president at the time, was quoted as a proponent of honor codes.

Honor codes are a “form of student self-government which, assuming every student is a man of absolute truthfulness and honesty, takes immediate cognizance of all violations of an accepted code of honor and through the student organizations procures the permanent removal from the student body of all those who, by violating in any degree this accepted code, prove they cannot safely be trusted,” Louis Smith said.

 Besides illustrating some of the key flaws of our Honor System today (the assumption of absolute honor and the lack of an accepted code), Smith points to the core of what an honor code is meant to do: promote honesty and foster trust.  

There is significant evidence that honor systems in higher education decrease the amount of cheating that occurs. Honor systems can generally be broken down into two different types: traditional and modified. 

The former consists of four components: an honor pledge, a peer-reporting requirement, a student-run adjudication system and a requirement that faculty turn all suspected cases over to the judicial body. Traditional honor systems also tend to have a single sanction of dismissal. 

Modified honor systems are newer and much more lenient, with students participating in the process but mainly controlled by faculty and administrators. Although there is no requirement that faculty report suspected student violations, for the most part Washington and Lee operates on a traditional honor system.  

Studies have shown that, compared to modified honor systems, traditional ones have higher rates of success because it places the burden of upholding the system on the students. With written pledges on tests and the reminders of peers’ watching eyes, traditional honor systems decrease the instances of cheating by encouraging students to act with honor. 

One study conducted by Ohio State University found that the presence of an honor code backed by reminders of the expectation of honor before an exam (like a signed or verbal pledge) dropped the percentage of students who cheated on at least one exam in the semester from 50% to 12.5%. This study emphasized that it is not so much the threat of punishment that prevents students from cheating, but the reminders of honor and morality that make it harder for students to rationalize their actions. 

Despite the obvious benefits of honor systems, most people (even proponents of honor systems) can agree that universities across the country face one major problem: honor systems tend to disproportionately report and expel students of color. 

Many institutions do not publicly report or even collect significant data on the demographics of honor expulsions. Still, the institutions that have comprehensive reports all show that racial minorities are disproportionately represented in honor convictions. 

The University of Virginia is one school that has collected and published its honor findings since 1968. Analysis of this data over six years (2012-2017) shows that Black students are overrepresented in those who are reported for honor violations (8.7% of reported violations while making up only 6% of the student population). 

Asian and Asian American students are severely overrepresented, making up at least 27% of reported violations but 12% of the total student body. White students representing 58% of the student body are dramatically underrepresented, making up only 29% of reported violations. 

International students are also disproportionately represented in honor accusations and more likely to be found guilty than domestic students. This study also notes that there is a significant portion of “unknown” races in both the student body and honor accusations – meaning the disproportions could be even more dramatic than they seem. 

The problem is not isolated to just UVA.It is a trend that is seen throughout the country. Our next-door neighbor, Virginia Military Institute, has astounding disparities in honor expulsions, with cadets of color making up 23% of the corps but 41% of the students dismissed for honor violations since 2011.   

It is impossible to know for certain if our honor system follows the same trends of racial disparity between the makeup of the student body and the makeup of honor accusations and convictions, but it is fair to assume that Washington and Lee would not be immune with respect to racial inequalities. 

Outside of higher education, racial minorities face higher rates of conviction with more severe punishment in the criminal justice system and in primary and secondary education. Washington and Lee does not exist in a vacuum, and we almost certainly fall into the same patterns of discrimination, unintentional or otherwise, in our honor system. 

According to the White Book, the secretary of the Executive Committee is supposed to “make every effort” to record the proceeding of an honor trial, but there is no clause dictating that the EC must track demographic trends. 

James Torbert, president of the EC, said that due to confidentiality reasons and the changes in policy on record keeping, the EC does not retain demographic information in full. However, keeping this kind of data on Honor Matters is possible without violating the privacy of the accused – VMI and UVA are proof of this. Racial disparities in our Honor System may or may not exist, but with the White Book’s very loose rules on keeping important records, we have little hope of being able to know with certainty.   

In the face of these problems, it is hard to continue to be a proponent of any honor system. But if our Honor System is to continue, we need to take steps to ensure that it is one all students can trust. 

The first step in solving any problem is admitting that there is one, quantifying it and putting together a group that will work on modifying the system to minimize the problems. 

Collecting data on race, gender and other key demographic details for each of the honor hearings is a good step forward. A more transparent system that maintains records and shares them with the entire campus, while protecting the identity of the accused, would go a long way toward building trust. 

Another obvious step would be to try students by a jury of their peers. Universities with standing juries (which the EC is to some extent) must be diligent about the demographic makeup of the panel. 

Diverse juries make fairer verdicts – not only is the EC almost entirely white, but it is also dominated by men. Many colleges use random juries or nominated juries that the overseeing student-led executive branch would call, rather than having the student executives be the jurors, judge and prosecutor all at once, as it is with our EC. 

By calling a panel of jurors every time there is a new case, the EC could make a committed effort to make the jury representative of the student body and minimize the potential for discriminatory outcomes.   

Our Honor System is flawed, and it is complicit in ignoring a glaring problem that honor systems across the country face. The Honor System is a part of the university’s history and is instrumental in promoting a community guided by honor. 

But honor is only one-half of Louis Smith’s praise of a perfect honor system. Without making a committed effort to acknowledge and address potential biases and inequalities in our system, we lack the trust component of a perfect honor system. We should be able to have full trust that our Honor System is fair and impartial. Until we start enforcing public reviews of the honor verdicts and accusations, we cannot and should not trust our Honor System.