Honor reform at the College must begin with the Honor Council
November 2, 2010
As College of William and Mary President Taylor Reveley informed the student body late last week, the College will be undertaking an honor system review later this year. While it is great to see that such a diversified committee of students and faculty has been charged with creating comprehensive honor system reform strategies, I would suggest that this reform can only take one form — an examination of the Honor Council.
I was once very supportive of the idea that the student body that lives together can adjudicate together. However, like many of my fellow students, I have come to know people who have actually been through the meat grinder known as the Honor Council process, and, like meat processing itself, the Honor Council is simply hard to trust. I am not as concerned with the individual cases of supposed impropriety that were grotesquely detailed last year, or the innuendos of corruption that mar the Honor Council; rather, it is the current structure of the Honor Council that bothers me. There are two characteristics that can legitimate an Honor Council: Its function as a representation of the student body and the idea that its members embody the best in College ethics. Currently, I feel that the Honor Council falls short of either characteristic.
A student-led enforcement of the Honor Code has the potential to reflect the very best of the College community bond, but the existing Honor Council election process leaves a democratic deficit. Apart from reading a four to five sentence personality description on election day, student voters have no interaction with the Council candidates whatsoever. Honor Council members will explain to students campaigning is banned in order avoid popularity contests. But if I may ask, just what is it now? Perhaps some can determine what candidates are like based on these one-paragraph, “I love that I can leave my bookbag in open spaces,” candidate descriptions, but I am not one of them. In this system, I imagine that most students vote based upon whom they know already.
To me, a far better way of choosing a Council representative would be to institute random, case-by-case Council selection. Naturally, there may be problems with biased or incompetent investigators, but at least he deferdants would be certain that he or she is judged by his or her peers. One could also argue that random Council duty would be inconvenient and cumbersome for the vast majority of those selected. To me, Council duty should not be fun or even something one wishes to put on his or her resume; it should be taxing to determine the collegiate and even post-collegiate fate of one’s fellow student. Enthusiastically volunteering for this solemn undertaking for an entire school year, or more if re-elected, spells trouble for defendants.
The other element that makes the Honor Council attractive appealing is the notion that its members are some of the most ethical, hardworking, and contemplative people in the community. So what is the vetting process to gauge these values, in the candidates? After a student goes through the grueling process of obtaining two whole recommendation letters and writing one essay about the Honor Council, school administrators, outgoing Council members, faculty members and one member of the student body meet to review the nominee list. The committee members have to come to a 5/6ths agreement, a feat not even the 1933 Democratic Congress could accomplish, to remove a candidate from the list. Among the criteria being considered for removal is the stipulation if the candidate is unable to fulfill his or her duties for more than 15 percent of the elected term. Thus, the only qualities that Honor Council nominees must display before posting their lovely “about me” entries on election day are good grades, the ambition to accumulate application materials, and most importantly, a strong desire to be on Honor Council. This is not to suggest that specific current members are less than trustworthy human beings; I am simply arguing that the process for nominating the most ethical among us is vacuous at best.
While I favor making the Council more representative in nature, one way to improve the meritocracy of the Honor Council would be to have the currently required practice case actually be judged either by the Nominating Committee or by students. Just think about it, AMP: A Friday night practice Honor Council case in the Commonwealth Auditorium with popcorn and a hypnotist during deliberations might be fun. In all seriousness, practice cases for candidates should be more than formalities.
Seemingly every time there is an Honor Council case with a guilty verdict, a series of bitter editorials critiquing the Honor Council ensues. I hope that my argument for reform of the Honor Council highlights the broader maladies that perhaps set the stage for the alleged case-by-case improprieties. As the College comes together to augment the honor system this spring, I hope that the road to reform starts with the institution in most dire need of it.