Culture, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people or other social group.” The College of William and Mary is an institution that possesses a culture — its own unique customs and expectations. This culture is built on the back of the College’s most recognized and revered document: its honor code.
The College was the nation’s first institution to create an honor code. The centuries-long tradition dates back to 1736, and has stayed relevant year after year with every new pupil reciting the honor code in the Sir Christopher Wren Building during their first week on campus.
The honor system is strict. Those who violate it face penalties up to expulsion. Each semester, the Honor Council publishes a shortlist of infractions reviewing deviations from its standards and prescribed repercussions. This provides transparency and accountability for the process. The College also leverages student oversight of the document. Thus, the very individuals who walked through the doors of Wren during orientation are accountable for the honor code and ensuring its culture of integrity. The honor code states that violations “undermine the community of trust, of which we are all stewards.” Thus, the honor code extends well beyond just the student body and applies to all members of the College community.
Earlier this month, students and alumni watched the fabric of the Tribe culture unravel. College President Katherine Rowe, College Provost Peggy Agouris and Athletic Director Samantha Huge published a statement changing the lives of student athletes and the College community forever. They made the decision to cut seven of the College’s 23 athletic teams in response to their own questionable financial management. Trapped in eloquent words filled with compassion and grace for scholar athletes current and former, their statement quickly turned void when it was discovered they had copied, word for word, significant portions of a letter published just two months prior by Stanford University. Not only have questionable ethics and financial mismanagement gone into this decision, but actual plagiarism was used in notifying the community.
Is this the new standard for the College? The cohort signing this letter consisted of two Ph.Ds. and a J.D. One could only assume such an educated group, entrusted with leading the College with the nation’s original honor code, was aware that plagiarism is unacceptable and not reflective of the culture at the College. The College has maintained this standard for over two centuries. What possessed the president, the provost and the athletic director to treat it so cavalierly? Not only did these three leaders of the College eliminate seven sports teams, they eliminated every ounce of compassion affected readers struggled to accept the first time they read the letter, and again every time thereafter. The president, the provost and the athletic director took a moment that hurt thousands, applied a tourniquet and immediately cut it off. How can a proud, successful community be led by people who disregard its culture?
Trust has been broken and our culture of ethics and dignity is in jeopardy.
While we await the assurance of an investigation by the Honor Council, I challenge the greater College community to continue to represent itself and the College with integrity and respect for one another. If our leaders refuse to uphold the norms that unite and define us, we must become our own leaders. We must not look to them for examples of right versus wrong, but look to our predecessors who provided us with these unflinching standards. The alma mater of the nation deserves this, and it needs us to act with a clear and moral conscience to ensure our culture of integrity is not erased.
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