SA misses mark with referendum

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April 2, 2010

1:51 AM

Congratulations to the new members of the Student Assembly; you have earned the privilege of your classmates’ derision for the next year, pretty much regardless of your actions. But at least you can take solace in the fact that there seems to be one organization even more hated. The College of William and Mary Undergraduate Honor Council is so unpopular that a non-binding referendum calling for its abolition garnered support from 25 percent of voters. This might seem paltry compared to the 42 percent of students who expressed no confidence in the SA, but as far as I know there are no serious calls for its destruction.

How is it that an organization as ostensibly involved in students’ interests as the Honor Council could engender such animosity? The council’s purpose is sound. It provides a forum for charges against students to be investigated and judged by their peers. This method is clearly superior to such actions being undertaken by the College administration, since students have a greater understanding of the behaviors and intentions of other students. In addition, students are probably more able to get to the truth of the matter, as they are less intimidating than College officials when interacting with the parties involved. Even if you don’t respect your peers enough to submit to their judgment, the administration reviews every case and has the right to overturn or mitigate a sentence. If you choose to appeal, half of the jury will be faculty and staff. Overall, this seems to be a good process.

Of course — like any other organization — the Honor Council has some procedural issues, and these are the root of most criticisms. These problems, however, are small, and the council is already working to address them. Take, for example, the election process. Candidates for the Honor Council submit their applications to a nominating committee, which vets them. If they are found to have violated the Honor or Student Code, or if their recommendations from faculty are negative, they are not allowed to run. Otherwise they are put on the ballot, for which no campaigning is allowed; voting is based solely on a short essay.

Two criticisms are leveled at this process. First, some take issue with the fact that the nominating committee can remove a candidate from the ballot without a unanimous vote. Previously, the committee was composed of two non-returning members of the Honor Council, the dean of students, a faculty member and one student representative. A candidate could be removed by a four-fifths vote. Recently one more student representative was added to the committee, and currently removal is only accomplished by five votes. It seems to me that if only one in five people believe you should be even considered for a position on the Honor Council, you probably shouldn’t be.

The second problem with the election process is the stipulation that candidates may not campaign. This is a legitimate concern. If we are supposed to select candidates based on our understanding of their characters, we need to know them first to make an informed choice. We probably will not know all — or even most — of the candidates, and this poses a problem. An equally serious issue, however, is that campaigning will lead to the election of the best campaigners, not the best students. These two concerns must be balanced somehow, which is no easy task. Perhaps more information on the students could be provided to us before the election, or students, faculty and staff could write public recommendations giving us examples of how candidates exemplify the tenets of the Honor Code. In any case, the Honor Council is not blind to these concerns and has recently formed a committee to reevaluate the elections process, emphasizing exactly this issue.

It is amazing to me how procedural questions like the ones above can translate into calls for the abolition of the Honor Council, especially when, in addition to providing an important service to students, the council seems to be seriously looking for solutions and dedicated to finding compromises.

E-mail Ed Innace at [email protected]

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