If you haven’t heard about it yet, all of you should become familiar with the recent Undergraduate Honor Council controversy. Documents from three separate cases portray a very troubling image of the organization. The conclusion is mind-blowing in some ways because of how upsetting it is — students are being unfairly treated and punished by the Honor Council, our supposedly neutral judicial organization. It’s clear from reading about the issue that the Honor Council has to change, and that it has to change immediately to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. We deserve better, and our Honor Code deserves better.
In all of the stories, a central theme becomes clear: The Honor Council doesn’t trust the student body. Instead of treating students as innocent until proven guilty, we are treated as guilty until proven innocent. This is a problem. If the Honor Council cannot trust us, then we cannot trust the Honor Council. The College of William and Mary Honor Code states, “In a community devoted to learning, a foundation of honor among individuals must exist if that community is to thrive with respect and harmony among its members.” I could not agree more. We all give the Honor Pledge during orientation, in which we collectively entrust the Honor Council with the guardianship of the College community from those who lie, cheat, and steal. But what happens when those we have elected violate the very code they have sworn to protect and uphold?
In the last Honor Council election, only nine people ran for eight positions in the Class of 2011. Seven of the winners were returning members. Only 10 people ran for eight positions in the Class of 2012. Six of the winners were returning members. A system has been created that ensures election for the most visible and popular people running — the current members.
What should be a fair and impartial judicial process has been corrupted by the realities of electoral politics. As someone in an elected position at this school, I know all too well that people who run for office have inflated egos. This is a major problem when ruining a student’s life is at stake. The Chancellor of the College, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, has made it her priority issue since leaving the bench to end the election of judges. In March she stated, “We are the only nation in the world that elects its judges. We are just way out in left field on this.” I agree with our Chancellor. While our Honor Code may be the oldest in the country, the organization meant to protect it is not quite as sacred. The council is considerably younger than the code, and it can and should change with the times.
There seems to be a consensus among many people that change must be made. One extreme solution is to abolish the Honor Council. After all, 25 percent of the student body voted to abolish it on March 31. While it’s not a majority, this figure shows that a significant portion of us are distrustful. The other extreme solution is to keep things mostly the way they are with a few cosmetic differences. Both of these options are unacceptable, and a compromise is desperately needed.
We need an honor council. This version, however, hasn’t proven to be up to the task. So we need a new honor council. There are a number of ideas floating around, and they all deserve full consideration. Two examples include (1) ending elections and (2) removing power from the current members, instead letting the judging be done by a random jury of our peers. These changes should be discussed over the next week, with the Honor Council substantively modified by the time this semester ends. Opponents of reform are trying to stall until the summer in the hope that momentum fades. That isn’t acceptable —change must happen now before another student is given an unfair trial, since final exams are traditionally the busiest time of the year for the Honor Council.
If the administration and the current council aren’t willing to give us changes, then we need to give them changes. Deliberation of this reform will need to be as transparent and public as possible. To that end, later this week a public forum will be publicized where all members of the community are invited to come and voice their opinions. This is a hugely important issue, and it will affect present and future students at the College for decades to come.
E-mail Erik Houser at firstname.lastname@example.org.