A final examination of the Honor System

There are many problems with the Honor System, but there are also many conversations on how to address them


Lilah Kimble

Student engagement is necessary to meaningfully reform honor standards at Washington and Lee, Aliya Gibbons writes.

Aliya Gibbons, Staff Writer

I  spent this semester writing about the Honor System and the Executive Committee (EC), the flaws I see, and the potential for something better. I’ve received feedback from alumni (some positive, most not) and engaged with several members of the EC about my critiques of the Honor System and the role of the EC. With the fall term ending, I want to use the Phi’s final issue of the semester to reflect on the Honor System and the conversations the EC has been having in response to my comments. 

Demographics and racial bias:

Studies conducted at other universities that have an honor system suggest that their system is subject to racial bias. The EC, however, is reluctant to engage in similar research because of confidentiality issues and because the collection of that data is not easily done. On the confidentiality front, they worry that because there are so few honor violations in a year, the release of that kind of data would be traced back to a student who disappeared from campus. This can be easily solved by releasing cumulative and delayed data. For example, every four years, the EC releases an accumulation of data from the four years prior, with a couple of years delay to ensure the anonymity of accused students is preserved. 

I will concede that collecting demographic data on students involved in honor matters is more technical than I initially realized. The EC has a valid concern that it is insensitive to ask a student accused of an honor violation to take the time to answer demographic information, and if the student is not asked to fill it out themselves, the EC would then be making assumptions on behalf of that student. Although I agree that the logistics are complex, I do not find this a compelling enough reason to dismiss the idea of obtaining demographic data outright. Every student fills out this kind of information in the admissions process, so that data is already collected and available. 

 One way the EC combats potential biases in honor matters is by participating in implicit bias training and other initiatives led by the Office of Inclusion and Engagement. I think this is great, but the first time I asked about the possibility of bias in the Honor System (during that orientation week) I got the answer, “Trust me, we are not like that.” 

I was not satisfied with that answer then, and I am not satisfied with that answer now. Implicit bias training and other diversity initiatives only do so much, and it is asking us to take it on faith that it is effective. I trust the EC to be fair, but I want to know it for sure. In other words, don’t tell us, show us.

The virtue of an uncodified system:

One of the selling points of the Honor System is that it is uncodified (although technically, it is at least partially codified), which means that no code defines dishonorable conduct. The White Book says this and provides its simplistic justification in its second paragraph: “At Washington and Lee, dishonorable conduct is not codified; rather, the Honor System is based upon the principle that any action deemed a breach of the community’s trust will be considered an Honor Violation.” 

This gives the student body some control over the system. We alone get to define what is a violation of the community’s trust. As an uncodified system, the Honor System can be more lenient, take into consideration other factors than just the potential act itself, and allows the system to adapt to the standards of each class. 

However, not having a code of conduct leaves the Honor System subject to arbitrary application and raises serious due process concerns. None of us know for sure when an action might amount to an honor code violation. The obvious ones like plagiarism or cheating or stealing are clear, but after that, it all gets a little fuzzy. 

This confusion by students is seen in one frequently asked question on this campus: “Is this an honor violation?” At the very least, it was a question on everyone’s mind with the inflammatory article in the Spectator and with the recent bomb threat. 

Eli Samson, ’23, Secretary of the EC, is an overall proponent of the uncodified system, but he admits that controversial issues on campus (like the turmoil over the potential name change) make it hard for even the EC to identify what is in line with the community’s trust. The virtues of an uncodified system are important to retain, but without a clear understanding of what constitutes a violation of the community’s trust, the Honor System can become unevenly applied. 

The Executive Committee wears too many hats:

The EC has an extraordinary amount of power in our student body government. It is executive by nature: the EC can create (and absolve) student body organizations, appoint student representatives, and allocate funds to those recognized organizations. At the same time, the EC is in charge of the Honor System and so it is not just executive — it also acts as judge and jury. 

For this reason, the EC should be split, or bifurcated, into two different entities. There are some members of the EC, like JC Ward, ’23, who agree, not necessarily with my specific opinion, but with the idea that bifurcation can be a solution to the potential conflict of interests in the EC presiding over student governance and the Honor System.

The President of the EC, James Torbert, ’23, argues that if honor matters were to be a separate entity, the honor committee would become a feared police force and out of touch with the will of the student body. However, separating honor matters from the EC’s jurisdiction means that honor committee members (if they are still elected officials) will arguably be more in touch with the students’ will, as they will be elected strictly on their honor committee record. 

Any honor committee will have to combat the appearance of being a feared police force, but those with the opinion that blending powers prevents this underestimate the feeling among students that the EC already is a police force. Honor matters overshadow the other powers of the EC, which prevents students from understanding the other aspects of the EC’s jurisdiction. 

Student apathy and the Constitutional Review Committee:

A Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) is assembled every three years — this year being one of them — to evaluate the state of student government, understand the opinions of the students on the state of self-governance, and report back to the EC with proposed changes. 

A town-hall style meeting was held by the EC and CRC the Monday after break to allow for student voices to be heard. One concern the EC and the CRC express is the general apathy of the student body. The way our student government is set up does not inspire a lot of confidence, and so it is easy to be apathetic toward a system that seems flawed and towards an EC that is intimidating and seemingly inaccessible, especially to first-years. 

There are a certain (not insignificant) number of students who just do not care, which I do not blame them for. But there are some students that do care and for those students, their voices should be heard. The CRC is one of those opportunities and so are the EC’s open business meetings every Monday at 7:30pm. 

Through many conversations with the EC over the past few weeks, I can say for certain that the student representatives want to hear from the student body at large. For first-years, representative Jackson Doane, ’26, is beyond eager to hear from students and is actively trying to find new ways to allow the first-year class to be heard. Student apathy and general hesitance towards voicing concerns results in nothing changing, even if many students believe changes should be made. 

Student governance at Washington and Lee is a work in progress, as it always should be. As much as some of the alumni who respond to my articles would beg to differ, they do not get a say in how student government works — that right is reserved for the current student body, and us alone. 

Part of the CRC’s job is giving the students a chance to voice their opinions on how to take steps towards a “more perfect” system. Whether you agree with me or not, I urge you to make your voice heard and help improve the system of government so that it works for everyone. Participate in the process — that’s the bottom line.