Open Letter from Honor Council alumni to Board of Regents

 

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Photo courtesy of sewanee.edu

February 24, 2018

 

Dear University of the South Board of Regents:

As recent alumni, we write this letter out of grave concern for our beloved University. We are indebted to a school that has already opened many doors to us, and will continue to do so. Therefore, with the recent decision to not revoke Charlie Rose’s Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, we feel obliged to speak up, and ask you to reconsider the use of the University’s Honor Code in your justification for retention of Mr. Rose’s Degree. As former members of the Honor Council’s Executive Committee, we come to you requesting a deeper reflection on one of Sewanee’s foundational pillars: the Concept of Honor. We are aware that the current council has issued a statement in the same vein, and we would like to echo some of their points, as well as further emphasize others.

In your letter to Ms. Brickson and Ms. Murdock, you cite “the academic and the ecclesiastical” aspects of the Honor Code as dictating your deliberations regarding Charlie Rose’s honorary degree. As former members of the Council’s Executive Committee, we wish to specifically address the notion of academic honor you have highlighted, as we find this logic superficial and flawed.

A few points come to mind as we reflect on the implications of your decision. As we do in any honor council preceding, let us begin with the Code. The Code has explicit and implicit aspects, and both, we believe, may easily be applied here. This statement stands at its core: “No code can adequately define honor. Honor is an ideal and an obligation. It exists in the human spirit and it lives in the relations between human beings. One can know honor without defining it.” These words create potential contention and clear direction. One could debate what is deemed as honorable or not; however, we believe, and hope you do as well, that the violation of another’s physical being, particularly sexual assault, is a slash and attack on society’s foundational sense of honor. “Honor is an ideal,” and thus can never fully be obtained; however, this leaves no room for excuses when we put ourselves in situations that break trust, wrong others, and dishonor a community. Honor too is “an obligation,” and again highlights the lack of an excuse for such dishonorable acts. There are reasons why the student body, throughout the decades, has decided to address cases of academic and non-academic dishonesty. There is firm consensus that one cannot choose to be honorable in the classroom while exercising egregious behavior in social lives. While we acknowledge and stand firm in our belief that acts involving sexual violence must be handled by a body of faculty and staff, not the student-run council, it goes without saying that sexual violence is dishonor in its highest form.

Charlie Rose, you, we, and all members of our community must all be treated the same under this standard. As alumni, we still find ourselves bound by a system that shaped us. Explicit components of the Code are also relevant. Plainly written as the third pillar of our code, “since the integrity of the degrees granted by the University must depend in large degree upon the Honor Code, all students in every class must regard themselves as particularly bound by their honor not to cheat in any form.” Sewanee, Dr. McCardell, and the Board: Integrity is at stake here. We are willingly allowing an individual to keep an honorary degree who has come forward to own up to his dishonorable acts of the past, yet later contradicts himself with justifications for his actions. Maintaining such a course of action calls into question those who have walked through the gates of the domain before us and it diminishes the opportunities for those to come. We must not stand by and watch this unfold.

Dr. McCardell and the Board, in our time at Sewanee and still to this day, we often reflect that there is more that can be done, more that we could have done, more that we should have done as representatives of an age-old system. A system that is cherished and revered now stands above a tightly strung wire. It could tip either way. We strongly believe that Rose’s heinous acts stand directly against a community bound by honor. In 2017, the Honor Council issued a survey to the entire student body and 650 students responded (about ⅓ of the student body). Although the survey did not directly ask about sexual assault or sexual misconduct, many comments addressed this issue. The following is a small sampling. When asked: “In general, how do you feel about the Honor System at Sewanee?” a student responded, “Overall it’s good, but there are definitely issues with the fact that these is so much fear over accidental plagiarism while sexual assault and drug abuse go unacknowledged.” When asked, “Do you think the penalty options should be expanded?”, a student replied, “I would like there to be more transparency about the honor code and honor code violation trials. Is it true that students receive harsher punishment for plagiarism than for sexual assault?” Another student emphasized the confusion on campus: “I am incredibly disappointed in the way I have seen sexual assault cases dealt with on this campus and believe that to be a far more urgent matter than lying, cheating, or stealing. I would really like to see the Honor Council take some action on that. I feel like the majority of my fellow students would agree.” In the Spring of 2017, these quotes accompanied the results which were published to the entire faculty, staff, and students of the University. Regretfully, we did not send them to the Board of Regents. However, Dr. McCardell, Mr. McAlister and Ms. Eidson met with you to discuss these results. We concluded that the honor council, made up of 12 students, is not qualified to handle sexual assault cases, but that there must be a more transparent body which handles these cases. Students are clearly not aware of who handles them, and clearly not aware of the process which occurs in handling them (and still are not). Dr. McCardell, you assured us that this would be fixed. When you say in an interview with Nashville Public Radio’s Emily Siner, “Making a gesture, as a practical matter, probably does little to change a culture or change behavior,” that terrifies us. What then, does change behavior? Having such a nuanced Honor Code, where every word holds a tremendous burden, we can assure you that a small gesture would have the ability to alter culture. Adding or removing a single word from the Code changes the Council’s verdicts.

There is no excuse, and we cannot be silent when the code, the council, and all it stands for is used to justify an act from the past. You are correct, this is no ordinary case. General case procedures, the due process investigations, and hearings the Council conducts cannot be carried out in this instance. However, it concerns us to hear the Honor Code used as a means of justification for forgiveness. The code does forgive, you are correct in this sentiment, but not until the guilty party has left Sewanee, spent time away, and ultimately reapplied to the University. Furthermore, one is not just accepted back to Sewanee by default, and must prove sincerity in learning during the time away from the Mountain. One does not simply cheat, leave, and come back. Your writing is an oversimplification of our process, and it jeopardizes the integrity for which it stands.

It is not easy to face the hard questions, make the hard decisions, and come face to face with those who disagree with you. We have been there. We have sat in the same room as you and had these hard conversations, and we have walked out of the Regents Room doors only to find a campus with a different opinion of us based on decisions from a previous night. But it is far harder to be the one to stand with integrity in the face of what is not right. It is far harder to be the one who comes forward among classmates to turn another in and watch as the campus creates false opinions of you. But I am sure none of this comes close to the difficulty of coming forward and speaking out about sexual assault, knowing that others may not listen. And now, we fear that it will only get harder on the mountain for those in this position who wonder, “Will my voice be heard?” to come forward, to speak up, to speak out.

We stand firm in this position to ask you to revoke Charlie Rose’s Doctor of Humane Letters.

Respectfully,

Mark McAlister, C’17 Chair 2015-2017
Elizabeth Eidson, C’17 Vice Chair 2016- 2017
David Prehn, C’16 Chair 2014-2015 & Vice Chair 2015-2016

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