Evan Behrle stepped into his one-year term as Honor Committee chair last spring at a critical moment in the history of the University of Virginia’s honor system.
Prompted by faculty and student concerns about inconsistent verdicts and reporting rates for honor offenses, the previous Honor Committee introduced the “Restore the Ideal Act” reform proposal, which would have eliminated the option of random student juries and replaced them with student juries comprised solely of Honor Committee jurors. The proposal also included the option of informed retractions, whereby students accused of an honor offense could admit their guilt before an investigation and take a leave of two full academic semesters before returning to the University.
The two-part proposal failed to gain the super majority of students’ votes needed to amend the Honor System, but a U.Va. law student’s separate proposal to institute informed retraction independently passed with support of 64 percent of the students voting. As Behrle’s tenure as Honor Committee chair winds down this month and he works to complete his undergraduate thesis for graduation, the fourth-year honors politics major from Baltimore said the recent changes have energized a student-run system aiming to strengthen the University community’s faith in Honor proceedings.
“I think we’re in a good position, especially introducing informed retraction, as a launching point for the revitalization of both the institution as a formal structure and of the culture of honor at U.Va.,” said Behrle, one of two College of Arts & Sciences fourth-year students awarded prestigious Rhodes Scholarships to begin graduate studies this fall at the University of Oxford in England.
“What the reform conversation really did last year was open up the discussion and serve as a public acknowledgment that things maybe weren’t as well as they could be. And I think that’s really important, because students really care about the honor system.”
For students found guilty by trial of an Honor offense of lying, cheating or stealing, expulsion remains the single sanction punishment. The introduction of informed retractions, however, allows students to come forward within seven days of being notified that an Honor report has been filed against them to admit guilt before taking leave for two semesters. After a year, the “Honor Leave of Absence” notation on their transcripts would be removed, whether or not they return to U.Va.
Informed retractions serve as an extension of the Honor System’s conscientious retraction policy, which allows students who have committed a potential Honor offense to come forward and confess before having any reason to believe they are under any suspicion of committing one. Under the conscientious retraction policy, a confessing student may remain at the University after making amends for the violation.
According to Behrle, the procedural implementation has been smooth. Since the option was introduced last April, seven University students have opted for informed retractions. Of the remaining 33 Honor cases from the same time period, 10 have proceeded to trial, with the return of one guilty verdict and nine not guilty verdicts, according to the Honor Committee.
Nine of the 40 cases remain under investigation, and some of these accused students may still file IRs.
The argument that informed retractions have weakened the Honor System’s traditional single sanction punishment of expulsion doesn’t hold water for Behrle, who said the Honor Committee is not seeking to create gradations of honor offenses with differing punishments.
“We’re not saying that some offenses are less severe or more severe than others,” said Behrle, an Echols Scholar and a Jefferson Scholar. “It’s a difference premised on the honor of the student. It’s a difference premised on whether you are willing to come forward and take ownership of this, which I think is much better than the system we had before where so many people were incentivized to lie their way through a trial and were found not guilty.”
As an example of the effectiveness of informed retractions, Behrle cited a recent Honor case reported by a professor who submitted inconclusive evidence of a student’s alleged cheating.
“The student was well aware that there wasn’t much evidence, but the student felt guilty and wanted to make amends,” Behrle said. “So the student took the IR, which allows students to learn from a mistake, whereas before, the case probably would have been dropped.”
Behrle said he believes the introduction of informed retractions has led to more faith in the honor system among faculty who had grown frustrated with past verdicts and the length of the process, which can stretch several months as witnesses are interviewed, Honor Committee members determine whether to render a formal accusation and accused students are granted time to prepare for a trial.
Going forward, Behrle said U.Va.’s honor system should continue to explore the jury composition issue raised by the failed Restore the Ideal proposal. Since 1990, accused students have been afforded the choice of a jury panel composed solely of Honor Committee members, a mixed panel of Honor Committee members and randomly selected student jurors or a jury panel composed entirely of randomly selected students. The vast majority of accused students selected randomly selected juries under the impression that panels that include Honor Committee members are more apt to return guilty verdicts.
Behrle said requiring mixed panels that include randomly selected student and Honor Committee members for all Honor trials may be the best compromise solution available.
“I think that a potential solution, and one that gets floated around a lot as sort of an obvious middle ground would be to eliminate the ‘all Committee’ and ‘all random’ options and just go for a mixed panel,” Behrle said. “If you look at how our trials work, the juries lead the trial.
“They’re not like criminal juries. They sit in the front of the room, they ask questions, first and last. They’re the only people who can call back witnesses. They’re kind of like the judges of an appellate court. So in one sense, it’s sort of quixotic that we have students with no previous formal interaction with the honor system leading honor trials. We train them a little bit, as much as you can, but obviously there’s something to be said for having more experienced people who can more consistently lead trials ask tough questions at the front of the room. But then with mixed panels, you also get the fresh viewpoints of the randomly selected students.”
An Honor conference being organized for next month, open to all University students, will aim to continue the public discussion of how to strengthen the honor system, as well as the culture of honor on Grounds.
“Anyone taking a clear-eyed look at the facts would say that things could be going better than they are,” Behrle said. “So we want to say, ‘OK, with that in mind, if we care about the system, and we do, what should we do about it as a community?’… At a school with 20,000 students, there really need to be institutional ways in which the honor system is inculcated into students. And I think one of the ways you do that is by allowing them to see, if not on a daily basis, a weekly, monthly basis that this thing is real. It’s not just this idea that we talk about and fetishize, but really a way of life.”