The glory and the dream

The single sanction is a fundamental part of our Honor System, but is it effective?


Lilah Kimble

Washington and Lee’s Honor System is rooted in a single sanction of immediate dismissal. But as other schools reform their honor systems’ penalties, should we do the same?

Aliya Gibbons, Staff Writer

A single sanction of immediate dismissal is one of the fundamental aspects of our Honor System here at Washington and Lee. According to the White Book, any violation of the community’s trust jeopardizes the privileges that the Honor System affords us and the unity that the system builds. Therefore, no breach of trust is small enough to be ignored, and every breach must be met with the immediate removal of the violator. 

The purpose and appeal of the Honor System is to build a community of honor. It is logical, therefore, to want to remove all “taints” on the system. In order to protect the community, we eliminate every possibility of dishonor in the pursuit of preserving trust. However, there is more to building a government and, more importantly, more to building a community than trust and honor. A single sanction compromises justice, proportionality and the possibility for growth and redemption. 

Single sanctions in honor systems are not proven to work. Reviews of the honor system at the University of Virginia show that while their honor committee only receives 40 to 60 cases of violations a year, over 200 students admit that they believe they might have committed a violation. In one academic year, 295 students reported witnessing or having knowledge of a violation, but the vast majority did not report it. Nearly half of the surveyed students said that the certainty of expulsion deterred them from reporting another student. 

The threat of expulsion does not deter students from committing violations but from reporting them. All the while, the honor committee is fulfilling its duty, dolling out punishment to the random few who are caught. A single sanction of dismissal turns the honor system into a game of chance. 

The use of single sanctions here at Washington and Lee (and at Virginia Military Institute) can be tracked to a high rate of perceived deterrence to cheating. A single sanction of expulsion attempts to rule the student body through fear, but studies have shown over and over that it is not the threat of punishment nor the severity of the punishment that deters crime, but rather it is the individual’s perceived likelihood of getting caught. 

A harsh single sanction of expulsion does not deter the individual from violating the honor system, it only decreases the likelihood the individual will be reported and the likelihood they will be caught. Our single sanction does not enforce honor, merely the illusion of it, which is why so many students do not trust the Honor System.  

Aside from not being effective, single sanctions of expulsion are not just. Our Honor System has no specific code for what qualifies as a violation of the community’s trust. Meaning, one student can be expelled for repetitive and premeditated cheating on exams with no remorse and another one can be expelled for a small momentary lapse of copying one answer on a homework assignment while amid a personal crisis. 

I think we can all acknowledge that there are levels of dishonorable conduct. Why should there not be commensurate levels of punishment? A harsh and sweeping arbitrary punishment leaves no room for nuance, no room for conscience and no room for “punishment that fits the crime.” 

So why do we insist on fitting each violation into the same box? More than 50 years ago, the Tuesday edition of the Ring-tum Phi wrote about this very notion. In their final publication of the year, in an article titled “The Glory and The Dream,” they wrote, “Washington and Lee tries to make very simple things out of situations which are highly complex. An example of this is the honor system.” 

I think they are right. The Honor System tries too hard to be simplistic and it compromises the nuances of reality for the sake of tradition and simplicity – it lives in the glory of simplicity and therefore it works only in ideals, falling short of the dream of fostering a community of trust and honor. 

After careful consideration of multiple reviews of their honor system, this past spring, students at U-Va. voted to change their single sanction of dismissal. 

U-Va. has proven many times over that they can acknowledge the faults within their system; they are proactive in collecting evidence and they are able to let go of 180 years of tradition in order to do what is right. U-Va. students have demonstrated that they can be responsible and reactive with self-governance. Why are we so resistant to do the same?