by James A. Bacon
Last week the Honor Council debated the viability of requiring Honor Code violators to perform community service under the University of Virginia’s new system of multi-tiered sanctions. No vote was held on the proposal.
Lukas Lehman, a second-year engineering student, argued that giving back to the community would allow students to re-engage with the university in constructive ways, reports The Cavalier Daily.
“Doing your sanction means committing yourself to the community of trust,” Lehman said. “Cleaning up the corner, cleaning up Mad Bowl, or working with the community for training makes sense because you are recommitting yourself to the community of trust.”
But students shouldn’t be allowed to choose whatever volunteer organizations they want, said Vice Chair Rachel Liesegang. “I think we should provide organizations [to volunteer with], and I think we should certainly accept student proposals, but I also don’t think we should be as relaxed as just saying they can choose whatever organization they want. If they’re just going to keep volunteering for [an organization they already work with], they’re not actually going through any rehabilitation.”
Bacon’s bottom line: It’s not clear from the Cavalier Daily account how much momentum the community-service sanction has. But the very idea is disturbing on multiple levels. First, suggesting that the act of lying, cheating or stealing can be expunged by a stint of community service trivializes the offenses. Second, the community-service requirement could easily devolve into a tool to enforce ideological conformity.
If the UVa Honor Code is evolving toward one in which lying, cheating and stealing can be atoned for by sweeping sidewalks or picking up litter, it has been leached of any meaning.
Honor once was regarded as a personal virtue to be cultivated because it is noble and right. The code provided a guide of conduct that Wahoos carried with them into their lives and careers beyond UVa. That is no longer how the Honor Code is justified. Today’s code is built upon pragmatic considerations: It creates a “community of trust.” Students can take un-proctored tests and exams. They can leave knapsacks or laptops unattended without the fear that someone will steal them. What once was considered a beneficial fringe benefit of the system has become the primary reason for it. But that “community of trust” does not, cannot, extend beyond UVa.
Moreover, an Honor System that allows for a wide range of sanctions at the discretion of student enforcers potentially can lend itself to abuse. We need look no farther than the case of Morgan Bettinger, in which the Student Judiciary Committee compelled her to perform community service to atone for the sin of having uttered the infamous “speed bumps” remark, which she “should have known” would have caused distress to others.
It is one small step from compelling a student to perform community service to performing service with an approved organization with the goal of, to borrow Liesegang’s phrase, “rehabilitating” them. To be sure, the Honor Committee is not the Student Judiciary Committee. Perhaps the current Honor Committee will be less willing to subordinate the upholding of Honor to the imperatives of social justice. But there is no accounting for what future Honor Committees might do.
All Wahoos have a stake in the outcome of this discussion. The older generation of alumni embraced Honor as a personal virtue. For many, the commitment to Honor defines who we are. We all lose if UVa’s concept of honor continues its steady incremental debasement. All alumni who care about the Honor System should pay heed to this unfolding debate — and insist upon being part of it.
James A. Bacon is executive director of the Jefferson Council. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect an official position of the Council.