Why the Honor Code Revisions failed, and why it matters

by Andrew Domingoes

Staff Writer

Last spring the student body voted 135 in favor of proposed Honor Code revisions and 85 not in favor, falling short of the required two-thirds majority of those voting to pass. Unfortunately, because elections were inconveniently scheduled and a lot of misinformation surrounded the revisions, many voters did not adequately understand the issues at hand. This fall, the Honor Council is taking action to engage students effectively and to make sure voters are clear on the revisions.

David Prehn (C’16), the Chair of the Honor Council, believes that these reforms are necessary to ensure that the Honor Code remains a living document in the student body, maintained and directed by student opinion. While disappointed that the student body turned down these revisions, he is optimistic that if the Honor Council can more efficiently provide the student body with the justifications for these modifications, they will have a much better chance of passing later this fall when students will have another opportunity to vote on them.He argues that because of the way the reforms were presented to the student body, there were misconceptions about their content. Specifically, the Chair believes that because the emails sent to students included a copy of the revised Honor Code with crossed out changes, there was a false application that student’s lost certain rights. As one student who wishes to remain anonymous commented, “At one point it appeared that a student’s right to a representative and to not respond (during a hearing) had been crossed out.” These misconceptions combined with the inconveniently scheduled referendum in the middle of finals week, Prehn asserts, may have ultimately contributed to failed passage of the revisions.

In an effort to be more transparent on this issue, the Honor Council has relied on student feedback from the previous election as it attempts to reshape its effort to pass the reforms. Prehn feels this is essential because students need to know that their voices are extremely important in deciding the rules that govern the student body. Additionally, he notes that the proposed changes are the culmination of a lengthy process among various Honor Councils spanning years, each of which has aimed at making the Honor System more effective for both the student body and the Council.

These are six of the most significant changes the Council has proposed. They are as follows:

  1. A revision to rule 5 of the Honor Code that now makes it an Honor Code violation to take any materials from the library, not just books (proposed for Rule 6 of the Honor Code).
  2. A proposal to expand the size of the Honor Council to 12 members, instead of the current 10. Under this proposal the Honor Council would include 1 freshman, 3 sophomores, 4 juniors, and 4 seniors as opposed to the current 1 freshman, 2 sophomores, 3 juniors, and 4 seniors. The reasoning for this is that as class sizes increase, it has become increasingly difficult to manage the larger caseload. Naturally, increasing the size of the Honor Council would expedite the investigation for students.
  3. Another significant proposal regards a change in language regarding the right to remain silent and to representation. This rule is written in a highly legalistic form and is similar to one’s “Miranda’s Rights.” The Council elected to change this language at the advice of the University’s Legal Counsel, Donna Pierce, to sound less legalistic as the Honor Code itself is an internal process and not a legal one. This could prevent potential legal problems in the future for the University. However, it should also be noted that the Honor Council went to great lengths to ensure that in no way does this revision threaten the rights to remain silent or representation. The language in Rule 5 is simply changed, and rule 8 of the Code ensures student representation at hearings before the Honor Council. Despite being very controversial, it was actually a fairly minor proposal that would have no impact on the current practices of the Honor Council (proposed for rules 5 and 8 of the Rules for Proceedings for the Honor Council).
  4. A proposal to streamline the process for handling students committing minor, non-academic violations (such as the use of a fake identification). These sorts of cases currently require a full hearing, but result in much more minor penalties (such as probation). Under this proposal, a student under investigation who admits responsibility to a non-academic violation, and if agreed upon by both the student and the Executive Committee of the Honor Council, (Chair, Vice Chair, and Secretary), may opt out of a full hearing and the decision as to the appropriate probation will be left to the Executive Committee of the Honor Council. This expedites the process for the most minor of non-academic violations (proposed for rule 4a of the Rules for Proceedings for the Honor Council).
  5. A suggested solution to a situation in which Honor Council members have a “collective affiliation” with a student that makes a hearing impossible. In such a case, the Council will report all case information to the Vice Chancellor who will then appoint a group of students to decide the issue. The group will consist of a member of the Order of Gownsmen, a member of Student Government Association, and three additional students. A member of the Honor Council will be present but will not vote. The decision of this body will then go back to the Vice-Chancellor who will then have the final decision. This is a measure meant simply to prevent Council members from having to make decisions in which their ability to act fairly may be compromised (proposed to rule 10b of the Rules for Proceedings for the Honor Council.)
  6. Finally, there was a measure that sought to allow all recordings of hearings to be “retained” by the Office of the Associate Dean of the College. This is a change from the previous rule that required that the Associate Dean of the College hold all recordings “in strict confidence.” Since the term “in strict confidence” implies that no person may access those recordings, the Council changed the term to “retained” because in actuality, the involved student or his or her parents may, under certain circumstances, have access to the record of the Honor Council proceedings. It’s a formality. (proposed to rule 11j of the Rules for proceedings for the Honor Council)

In summary these changes are meant to help all students both on and off the Honor Council. As Sewanee approaches the upcoming referendum later this fall, everyone should do his or her part to be informed about the issues at hand and remember that more than anything upholding the Honor Code is about preserving the sense of community that makes Sewanee so special.