To begin, we at the Review want to make clear that we are not taking any official editorial position on the referenda or candidates being presented to the University of Virginia student body for their consideration from February 19th to the 25th right here. We would instead like to do our part in providing commentary, or a few thoughts that students can mentally chew on as they decide whether and what to vote for. We hope that, in our small way, we are contributing to University discourse.
The most seminal choice that will be made in the coming week is in what form Honor will operate going forward. There are two options on the ballot, both of which amend the Honor Committee Constitution. Option one will allow students to retain the current system as it exists, premised on the single sanction with important alterations made in recent years through the Informed and Conscientious Retractions. As written in the report on multiple sanction honor systems at peer universities produced by the Honor committee, these modulations have already rendered the description of our current system as a single-sanction system “inaccurate.” Those who have committed an Honor offense are provided many opportunities before trial to come clean, and their punishments are far more lenient than expulsion.
However, there is a clear philosophical distinction between what we currently have and the less constrained language of Option two. Option two removes the constitutional barrier to implementing a multi-sanction system, and, if it passes, the Honor Committee will form a commission to study and eventually recommend what kind of multi-sanction system students may want. According to a central argument made by those in favor of Option two, a multi-sanction system will refocus the purpose of the Honor system from that stated at the beginning of its constitution, “preserv[ing] the community of trust which that System fosters,” towards administering a system of crime and punishment, adjudicating transgressions proportionately. In this sense, while the single sanction system is primarily meant to send a message and foster trust through the looming threat of a disastrous consequence, the multi-sanction system transitions to one with a primarily functional, and not moral, task.
Both sides have merit, and the Review will not formally endorse one position over another. However, it is interesting to note the context in which this fundamental question before us arises. Americans broadly are reeling from a combination of economic, social, and cultural pressures that have degraded their faith in the institutional pillars of our society. Thirty-five years of stagnant wages and incomes resulting from downward pressures on the labor market have created a state of constant economic precarity. The Great Recession only quickened the pace of the slow-moving natural disaster that technological gains and globalization have produced. Political polarization and gerrymandered districts have sent increasingly ideologically fixed representatives to Washington averse to the very compromise that both birthed and carried our national existence. Social media has empowered individuals over traditional media outlets and spread the word about issues that have caught like wildfire, most notably systemic racism and police brutality. On the right, the demographic destiny of the American people towards one of greater diversity and cultural empathy has left many conservatives of the old and white variety bewildered and bereft of belonging. Across the board, we are suffused with an intense negativity towards our systems of governance. Politically, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are the tribunes of this great wave of dissatisfaction.
Within this national ambiance, the Review would be surprised if Option two did not pass. The University of Virginia and its student body are specific pockets of the national experience whose preferences and opinions are in no way determined by the national mood. To think otherwise is a huge oversimplification. Still, we have endured a similar discontent with our institutions that has expressed itself in ominous terms for the integrity and credibility of student self-governance: apathy. The Cavalier Daily recently wrote an analytical piece about the extent to which voter turn-out has been low and why. The solutions offered by those who proposed some were band-aids to a gaping wound. The problem is not that there are not enough outreach or marketing efforts. If students felt that their votes and their choices made a significant difference, they would be motivated to vote. Few bother to because most people either do not care or are disappointed with what they have seen. Compounded by the country’s dour bend, Honor is most probably in for the kind of sledgehammer-smashing disruption of institutions that we will all have to reckon with sooner or later.