Honor Council strives for greater transparency through student survey

By Tess Steele

Executive Staff

In efforts to increase the transparency of the Honor Code and trial process, the Honor Council recently conducted a student survey to gage understanding of the Honor Code.


Student interest in the Honor Code has continued throughout the semester. Tasha Saunders (C’17) presented her Anthropology thesis on the Honor Code this February. She shared her experience with the Honor Code, in which she was found guilty of a violation at the end of her first semester freshman year. Following her suspension during the 2015 Easter term, she returned to campus and has since flourished as a Sewanee student.


Saunders’s thesis reflected her own experience and that of her peers who had faced similar situations, as well as a critical assessment of the Honor Council, Honor Code, and how these ideals of honor are implemented on campus.


“Tasha made [suspension] less stigmatized though her presentation and thesis. I hope we can work as a school to be less judgmental about people coming back to Sewanee,” said Elizabeth Eidson (C’17), Vice Chair of the Honor Council.


Feedback from the presentation reverberated beyond the event as students continued the conversations Saunders started. The Honor Council sent a schoolwide survey to measure the student body’s competency of the Honor Code and to provide a platform for students to share thoughts and ask questions to the Council. Following Saunders’s presentation, students were able to voice concerns on the survey.


“There are a lot of rumors surrounding the Honor Code. It is such an important part of Sewanee and students sign on to it and might not think of it is a big deal, but it basically encompasses the rest of their Sewanee careers,” said Eidson.


Confidentiality is a pillar of the Honor Council, and therefore the Council cannot respond to specific complaints, frustrations, or misconceptions about cases without threatening the confidentiality of the system. As a result, the Honor Council cannot always address ambiguities about the system directly. To combat these frustrations and to demystify the Honor Council, initiatives including a mock hearing, the Coffee and Conversation series, and the February survey are encouraging conversation about the Honor Code and allowing students to critically discuss honor and how the code should be upheld and enforced. More than 650 students participated in the survey, and the results were compiled into graphs for comparison.


The survey included a free response section, in which some students voiced frustrations with discrepancies between punishments for Honor Code violations and sexual assault cases.  Some students believe that the university’s policies towards sexual assault cases are too lenient in comparison to the Honor Code violation policies. In response to this concern, Chair of the Honor Council Mark McAlister (C’17) and Eidson clarified some misconceptions about the Honor Council’s jurisdiction over sexual assault cases.


While sexual assault is certainly a matter of respect and honor, these cases are simply out of the Honor Council’s jurisdiction of lying, cheating, and stealing. Title IX restrictions require extensive training for sexual assault investigations. This training is not feasible given the term length of Council members. Additionally, confidentiality is pertinent in these highly sensitive cases.


Students also raised questions about the role of intentionality during trials.  Many students want a student’s intent to weigh into the deliberation process. Including student intent threatens the objectivity of the entire trial, so to maintain the validity of the Honor Code intentionality cannot be a factor in the process. The Honor Council hopes to decrease the already rare incidents of students’ unintentional violating the Code through increasing education about the system.


The survey proposed Conscientious Retraction, an alternative reporting option for students guilty of a violation. Conscientious Retraction allows a student to turn herself into the Honor Council within 48 hours. This student would have the option to remain on campus for the rest of the semester rather than facing immediate suspension. The student would then be able to apply for Honor Council probation, permitting a student to have other repercussions for violating the Code in lieu of suspension.


The current system has no option for a student to self report, therefore this gives the student increased autonomy in the system. A majority of Sewanee students were in favor of the amendment of the Honor Code, and in the next two years McAlister hopes to have Conscientious Retraction ratified.


The Honor Council plans to incorporate a stronger educational system on the Honor Code during Freshmen Orientation and throughout the school year through interdepartmental collaboration and increased communication with faculty. The 2016 Freshmen Orientation included small groups of orientation leaders, an Honor Council member, and roughly 20 freshmen to explain the Honor Code. Feedback from the breakout session was positive and the Council plans to continue this practice.


Eidson and McAlister acknowledged the financial strain of suspension on students. They hope Sewanee will work towards a more collaborative relationship with the Honor Council, the readmission process, and financial aid to allow students to realistically have the opportunity to return and get their second chance, without the burden of financial stress.


“The purpose of the Honor Code is to maintain the integrity of the degrees conferred by the university, and it is hard to implement something that is tough, but overall the Code is very fair. [The Honor Council’s] goal is not to send people away for an Honor Code violation, but to have them understand the repercussions and then allow them to return with this understanding and offer themselves to the community. There is value to a second chance,” said McAlister.