Character is key for Honor Council
February 24, 2011
Last week I laid out an argument as to why an honor council composed of students was necessary if the College of William and Mary is to maintain a functioning honor code. I would like to continue the discussion by examining one of the main questions that arises from this conclusion: How should we decide who sits on the Honor Council?
It seems to me there are a number of qualities these people should share. Members must have wisdom, integrity and a high standard of personal conduct to allow them to sit effectively in judgment over their fellow classmates. They must also have the desire to do so, since being a member of the Honor Council is a demanding task. To find individuals that completely satisfy these prerequisites is not an easy task.
In the early days of the Honor Code there were far fewer students at the College, and they were more familiar with one another. This would have made exceptional candidates apparent to both students and teachers. Currently, the size of the College community makes it impossible to be very familiar with all — or even most — of our classmates. Such consensus agreement on council members is no longer possible, but we must still find a way to select them.
There are several possible processes for selection, but each comes with associated drawbacks. The most radical plan would be to grant council membership via lottery. The problems with such a scheme are obvious. It is expected that the council members are somehow qualified to judge their classmates and that they have exemplary personal qualities that make them capable of such authority. This is not served by picking them at random. Furthermore, the second qualification I mentioned — willingness to perform their duties — is not assured. It is worth considering, however, that randomly selected juries could be used in Honor Council trials. The University of Virginia uses such a system, but its council is even more maligned than ours.
A second method of selection would be by appointment. Interested candidates could submit applications to the council, which would be reviewed by a selection body — probably composed of council members, administrators and student representatives. This method is useful in judging tangible qualifications of a candidate and his or her desire to sit on the council. The flaw is that wisdom and integrity cannot be fully investigated through a paper application, or even through an interview. Such characteristics would be best judged by the friends and acquaintances of applicants who interact with them in their daily lives.
This brings us to the third process: democracy. A vote can be used to select council members. This would allow candidates to express their desire to be on the council through a declaration of candidacy and a campaign. The student body would then decide who should sit on the council. Now while this is perhaps the best alternative explored so far, it still has many problems. The first is that which is inherent in any democratic election: As any political observer may tell you, wisdom and integrity do not necessarily correlate with campaigning ability, popularity or political success. Secondly, unlike elected political officials, the Honor Council is not supposed to be representative of or beholden to the student body. Rather, its loyalty is toward the Honor Code itself.
This problem of selection has no easy solution, but the current hybrid of application-limited democracy is so far the best solution offered because it tempers the excesses of both the application and purely democratic methods. Its main drawback is the limited familiarity students have with candidates. While allowing campaigning is not the answer, perhaps the council could set up several formal and publicized forums where students could come and ask candidates questions. It should not be a debate, since council members should be chosen for their character and not for their policy positions, but instead a chance for students to get a better feel for the candidates. Selection will always be problematic, but, overall, it does not seem to be the most pressing area for substantial reform.