The University of Virginia student body has approved a major change to the institution’s honor system.
A vote was held last week for a proposal that would allow informed retraction — roughly equal to guilty pleas — leading to one-year suspensions for students.
“Hopefully this will be an opportunity for students to buy back in,” said the chairman of the student Honor Committee, Stephen Nash.
The students rejected a more complicated proposal Nash and other honor system officials backed, which included retraction, plus changes to the jury system.
Under the old system, students could not confess unless they did so before they knew they were suspected of violating the honor code, which prohibits lying, cheating and stealing. Now, students can confess even after being accused. But if they go to trial, the two possible outcomes remain the same as under the old system — exoneration or expulsion.
The measure passed 5,433 votes to 3,008 votes.
“I’m not upset about, but I think the jury’s still out so to speak, on the effect it’s going to have,” said student Kyle Schnoebelen, who voiced opposition to the Honor Committee’s proposal in the student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily. Schnoebelen had objected to the jury reform portion of the failed proposal.
He said he’s worried innocents would accept guilt to avoid the risk of expulsion. He also said he worries that jurors will presume that only someone actually innocent will risk a jury trial, with the less-severe option being available.
Both Nash and Schnoebelen praised the high level of involvement of students.
“I think the whole thing demonstrates that the UVa community is sufficiently involved and concerned about the honor process in the way that the committee maybe hadn’t thought to be the case,” Schnoebelen said.
Nash said he hopes the changes will lead to an ongoing conversation and further fixes to the system.
The Honor Committee backed a proposal that would have allowed informed retraction and removed juries of random students, replacing them with trained students. That proposal failed by a vote of 5,086 to 3,476. Honor officials had hoped it would restore faith in the system, saying random-student juries were reluctant to convict. The informed retraction piece was intended to balance the jury reform.
A law student petitioned to get the informed-retraction-only plan onto the ballot.
The version that passed, Nash said, had far fewer details than the committee’s proposal, including no concrete information on when the proposal would take effect. Nash said student leaders have enacted interim policies to make the change effective immediately, with provisions for incoming honor officials to hash out the permanent changes after they take office in April.
Faculty Senate chairman George Cohen declined to comment on the specifics of the proposal that passed, but said the faculty is supportive of efforts to improve the system.