Honor reform deserves more maturity
April 27, 2010
Editor’s note: John Pothen is the current Chair of the Honor Council.
During the past few weeks, the College of William and Mary Undergraduate Honor Council has come under a significant amount of criticism. News articles and editorials in campus publications have labeled the council a body that violates student rights. The assertion has been made that the council should be abolished, or at least fundamentally reformed. In response to these claims, I would like to share a few thoughts.
First, I ask everyone to think constructively about this situation. The honor process is not perfect, but we can take steps to improve it together. Come to the council with any input or concerns you have. Contact a council member, visit the council office (Campus Center 167, Monday through Friday between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., 221-3305), or submit a comment online at www.wm.edu/honor. The council has the power to revise its bylaws and affect change without requiring modification of the Honor Code itself.
Second, I ask you to consider what evidence has been brought against the council. The stories and opinions printed tell complex cases in a limited space and do not represent all the perspectives involved. I assert that a careful review of the facts in their totality would not support the conclusions reached.
Third, I ask you to understand why the council cannot refute specific allegations of wrongdoing. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 binds the Honor Council to maintain the confidentiality of all parties involved throughout the process. Names, hearing dates or any information that could be used to personally identify an individual involved in an honor case are never divulged. I hope you understand that current circumstances are not an exception. Breaking confidentiality would reflect valuing the council’s image above the rights, respect and privacy granted to our peers by federal law. That confidentiality must be maintained — especially now.
Fourth, I ask you to consider what information is available. The honor procedure and case outcomes are public and can be found on the council website. Additionally, every student has the right to appeal his or her case on the basis of discrimination, procedural errors, unsupported verdicts, new evidence, or undue harshness. Of the 88 cases handled by the council since the fall of 2007, 13 students have appealed their verdicts or sanctions based on a perceived procedural error or violation of a student right. Of these, seven were found to be with merit by a committee of two students, a faculty member and an administrator, and were passed on for further review. Only one of these appeals was deemed, upon review by a former Law School professor, to have included a significant error requiring modification of the outcome. It is worth noting that other cases have been modified on different grounds, including two based on the severity of the sanction.
Fifth and finally, I want to reiterate that the honor process is not perfect and that your critiques, concerns or comments are important. The College’s Strategic Plan includes the Honor Code and President Taylor Reveley and Provost Michael Halleran will decide what form this review will take. I will do all I can to support these efforts by participating in — and cooperating with — whatever process arises from the president and the current Elections Reform Task Force as well as existing efforts.
However, these efforts will be most effective if the driving force is the student body. Consider the information available, form your own ideas and criticisms, and bring them to the Council.
The Honor Code has not been significantly changed in almost 15 years. Perhaps the time has come to revise it again. Together, we must ask ourselves how we can best maintain the community of trust, of which we are all stewards.
E-mail John Pothen at [email protected]