Disruption Takes Honor

As institutions across the country are pressed to reform, so, too, is Honor.

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.

Our Short Attention Spans: ABC agents cleared in Martese Johnson arrest

On March 18th, 2015, then 3rd year student and honor committee member Martese Johnson, who is black, was held down and arrested by three Alcoholic Beverage Control officers as he bled profusely from an injury to the head. He was eventually charged with public intoxication and obstruction of justice. The controversial arrest, recorded and uploaded to the web almost as soon as it occurred, took place as the nation was grappling with similarly recorded instances of police brutality against persons of color, most notably Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and countless others. The story quickly attracted national attention, and the University saw a crowd of over one thousand assemble to protest the arrest. At the behest of University President Teresa Sullivan, on March 19th, Governor Terry McAuliffe ordered an investigation by the Virginia State Police into “the use of force in this matter.”

From there, there were important, if underreported, developments. Four months later, on July 29th, the state police filed its second report and sent it to Brian Moran, the Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, and the ABC. However, the report was not released to the general public. On August 10th, after reviewing the report, the ABC cleared the agents involved “of all wrongdoing.” A Cavalier Daily open records request to see the report was denied on the grounds that Virginia State Police are not “required to release the review under state law.”

Johnson’s arrest sparked outrage in a year of tumult and unwanted national media attention for U.Va. It is perhaps in an effort to move past last year’s unusual difficulties that the University of Virginia community seems to have allowed the Johnson arrest to fade into the recesses of recent history. But after the impassioned demands of student leaders, public officials, alumni, and many others for action, accountability, and investigation into the three ABC officers’ conduct that night, it seems that this story has died a premature death, and that it has not received its due.

The ABC has a history of unwarranted aggression. In 2013, Elizabeth Daly, a 20-year-old U.Va student, who is white, had guns drawn on her by plain-clothed ABC officers as she left an ABC store with a bottle of water. The agents thought she was carrying a 12-pack of beer. In response to Johnson’s arrest, Daly released a statement through her lawyer in which she asked Gov. McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring to make the state police investigation report public.

We at the Roosevelt Society agree with Ms. Daly, and we believe that the University of Virginia and wider Virginia public have a right to see the undisclosed report. As members of the University of Virginia community, we feel a need to speak out and do our part in assuring that this story does not go quietly into the oblivion of our short attention spans, especially as it is still under review. Shortly after the arrest, Gov. McAuliffe issued Executive Order 40, requiring “more training for all ABC special agents” in various areas including “use of force.” The executive order also appointed a panel tasked with making a recommendation by November 15th “regarding any identified changes needed,” among other provisions. Some of the goals highlighted by the executive order were “improving cooperation and communication with local communities and Virginia colleges and universities” as well as “improving accountability and oversight.” The state’s failure to release the state police’s report seems an odd way to start that process.

Perhaps the difference between inertia and change lies in just how much the student body shows it cares about this issue beyond its short term, glossy impact. Whether or not the ABC agents involved should be cleared of wrongdoing is not the question at hand. It is rather whether Virginia and the ABC abide by principles of good government: transparency, accountability, and communication, just as the governor’s executive order establishes. Let the facts of the case be judged by the clear light of day and not an obscure internal ABC review process. Let the public see the report and come to its own conclusions. It is simply what we deserve.