Students Mull the Honor Referendum That Could Reverse the Single Sanction

Each year, thousands of first-year student sign the honor pledge during UVA’s Opening Convocation and Honor Induction.
February 17, 2016

As part of the 2016 student elections that begin Friday, University of Virginia students will vote on two proposals, one of which could alter the honor system’s longstanding single-sanction policy.

The first will ask students to choose between two options: the current single-sanction system, in which all convicted students are expelled, and consideration of a multiple-sanction system. For a multiple-sanction system to be considered, 60 percent of the voting student body must approve the second option.

The second proposal will alter an amendment passed last year that requires the Honor Committee to propose binding constitutional amendments in response to non-binding student polls. The proposed change would allow the committee to enact responses outside of constitutional amendments, such as changing the bylaws that govern sanctioning rules and day-to-day operations. This year’s committee has spent about nine months researching sanctions at other universities in preparation for next week’s vote.

There are currently two exceptions to the single-sanction rule: “Conscientious Retractions” and “Informed Retractions.” Conscientious Retractions occur when a student admits an honor offense before he or she has come under suspicion. These students do not face expulsion. Informed Retractions, established by student vote in 2013, allow accused students to take responsibility for their offense before their case proceeds to a hearing. Students who file an Informed Retraction face a two-semester suspension.

If students vote this week to consider a multiple-sanction sentencing system for honor trials, the Honor Committee will create an independent review commission that will recommend sanctioning options, guided by student surveys and additional research and evaluation. That process would continue beyond the current Honor Committee’s term, which concludes in April, and has no set deadline.

“It is important that the committee be held accountable to responding to student opinion, but this year, our committee learned that it would be hard to gauge how long it would take to develop a multiple-sanction system,” said fourth-year student Faith Lyons, who chairs the Honor Committee. “We did not want to constrain future committees in that way, and so did not feel that imposing a specific timeline was appropriate.”

The second proposal would broaden the Honor Committee’s options in responding to student polls. 

A constitutional amendment passed last year reads, “Should a majority of voting students vote affirmatively on a non-binding question of opinion pertaining to the honor system in a University-wide election, the Honor Committee shall, in the following year, put such question before the student body as a binding constitutional amendment.”

Students can vote to change the amendment language to “the Honor Committee shall enact a response within the time frame of one year.” This would open up the number of ways that the Honor Committee could respond to student opinion, such as changing Honor Committee bylaws.

“Proposal two would expand the committee’s ability to ask other non-binding questions that could be advantageous,” Lyons said. “It is an effort to make sure that we can ask more questions and respond in more appropriate ways.”

Examples of non-binding questions could include, “Should the Honor Committee advocate for the hiring of more diverse faculty at the University?” or “How would you rank the following options for a multi-sanction system?”

There are four different scenarios that could occur after next week’s vote:

  • Option Two and Proposal Two pass: As they consider how to implement a multiple-sanction system, the Honor Committee will be able to ask non-binding questions about different sanctioning options. They would be obligated to respond to students’ answers, but could choose methods other than a constitutional amendment, such as changes to committee bylaws.
  • Option One and Proposal Two pass: The committee will continue with the current single-sanction system. It will be obligated to respond to student opinion on non-binding questions, but can choose measures other than a constitutional amendment. If 60 percent of students vote for the single-sanction option, that would be significant reaffirmation of UVA’s current system.
  • Option Two passes and Proposal Two does not: The committee will consider how to implement a multiple-sanction system and will be bound to propose constitutional amendments in response to any non-binding questions asked of the student body.
  • Neither proposal passes: The committee will continue with the current single-sanction system. They will still be bound to propose a constitutional amendment if students vote affirmatively on non-binding questions.

Lyons stresses that voter turnout is key to the long-term success of next week’s elections.

“We would love to see a large voter turnout this year,” she said. “However you feel about the single sanction, it has been an important feature in our honor system, and this decision should be made by a large portion of students voicing how they feel.”

Voting will begin Friday at 10 a.m. and continue through Feb. 25 at 4 p.m. Students can vote via a link on the University Board of Elections website.

Media Contact

Caroline Newman

University News Associate Office of University Communications