Desanctifying the Honor Code

Jon White-

I ran for the Honor Council my sophomore spring because the people I admired most were on the council, and adjudicating cases seemed like something I might be good at. My first case was incredibly intense, and when I left the deliberation room after 2 a.m., I was dumbfounded by the complexity of what honor means and by the gravity of our decision. The next morning I felt out of place on the paths I walked every day; exposure to the gritty process of justice had shred my veneer of ignorance.

The Honor Council is notorious for its secrecy, and I believe it’s true for all of the members of the council that the hearing process challenges us to consider honor and justice in ways that are hard for us to explain to the average student. In this way, the representative democracy of the council functions remarkably well as an adjudicating body, but it leaves the general student body blind to any part of its process.

A step toward transparency came in the previous edition of The Davidsonian. For the first time in my years at Davidson, the editors presented a list of recent Honor Code violations as a “hearings’ report,” listing the month, violation, plea, verdict, and sanction. The addition comes as part of an effort by the current Honor Council leadership to increase the council’s transparency and pull the Honor Code into the consciousness of the student body. I believe that the publication of this information is both disastrous and desperately needed.

Our allegiant faith in the Honor Code, instilled in us from our very first admissions tour, is perpetuated by the erasure of its infractions. Because of the Honor Council’s strict protection of anonymity, the only way a student would know of a particular case is to hear from the accused. In my four semesters at Davidson, I have never heard by word of mouth of anyone who has been tried. Such shame would be brought upon an offender that I doubt anyone found guilty would admit their experience to anyone but their closest friends. For the average student, it would be easy to believe that Honor Code violations do not happen on Davidson’s campus.

This belief is false and needs to be eliminated, but we should take a moment to mourn its passing. Erasing violations and/or violators of the law from society gives the impression that the law is never broken–creating the fiction that the law is all-powerful and invincible. This fiction is very useful in maintaining public order; citizens adopt the law as part of their cultural identity and adhere to it as a matter of course.

Such is the case on Davidson’s campus, as every Honor Council candidate’s blurb champions the trust, integrity, and honesty that the code affords our community. Many first-years will say that the Honor Code is something that drew them to Davidson in the first place, and last year, over thirty of them ran for three council member positions. This level of commitment constructs the idea that being a Davidson student is synonymous with the commitment to honor, and indeed, violation of the code is potentially grounds for expulsion. We should not take this allegiance for granted; it creates a sense of community on our campus that is beautiful–pushing students to pursue the highest academic integrity and to post on Facebook whenever they find a twenty-dollar bill.

And yet, no law is all-powerful or invincible. We can no longer take our institutions for granted; we are too smart to let them go unquestioned. The first step in critiquing the Honor Code is to publicly acknowledge the existence and the outcome of each infraction. Thus, I commend the current Honor Council leadership for the transparency in publishing cases and sanctions.

However, after breaking the seal of silence, the hearings’ report begs the question: what level of transparency do we want from the Honor Council? There are ideas that need to be discussed: the Honor Code’s core values, its punitive and restorative power, its deterrent ability. There are questions that need to be asked: How does our socioeconomic class/gender/race impact our conception of honor? Is the honor code working?

To fully investigate the Honor Code and Honor Council, we need data. Currently, any details from a case are honor bound to confidentiality, and this is a right which I believe should not be violated. The evidence presented in a case is often highly personal and I think the public shaming that would result from their publicity would be cruel and unusual. But in the name of research, what can we sacrifice? How can we approach these questions in creative ways and with creative methodologies?

I don’t have answers to these questions. However, I believe that students and professors must respond to these questions with dialogue and research. We must affirm and uphold the values of the Honor Code while simultaneously dismantling it from its position of sacred invulnerability. We, as a council, must push the punitive side of the Honor Code into the campus’s consciousness, and ask them, to the fullest extent possible, to think deeply about the code’s enforcement. Addressing these issues will be inflammatory, but considering and challenging the Honor Code has only deepened my love for the Davidson community and admiration for the way we shape who we are.

Jon White ’19 is an Anthropology major from Durham, North Carolina.  Contact him at jowhite@davidson.edu.

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