'I Certify On My Honor--'
The Real Story of How the Famed 'Honor System'
at University of Virginia Functions
and What Matriculating Students Should Know About It
By C. Alphonso Smith
In 1818, a 75-year-old Virginia gentleman expressed his ideas on academic discipline in this far-sighted manner: "The best method of government for youth in large collections is certainly a desideratum not yet attained by us. It may well be questioned whether fear, after a certain age, is a motive to which we should have ordinary recourse. The human character is susceptible to other incitements to correct conduct more worthy of employ and of better effect. Pride of character, laudable ambition and moral disposition are innate correctives of that lively age and when strengthened by habitual appeal and exercise, have a happier effect on future character than the motive of fear. Hardening them to disgrace, to corporal punishment, and servile regulations cannot be the best process for producing erect character. The affectionate deportment between father and son offers, in fact, the best example for that of tutor and pupil; and the experience of other countries in this respect may be worthy of inquiry and consideration with us. It will then be for the wisdom and descretion of the visitors (trustees) to perfect and prepare a system of government which, if founded in reason and comity, will be more likely to nourish in the minds of our youths the combined spirit of ardor and self-respect so congenial without political institutions, and so important to be woven into the American character."
With these words Thomas Jefferson laid the foundation stone of the honor system at the University of Virginia; but the university was born, Jefferson died, and 24 years passed before these principles took root in the fertile soil of the university which Jefferson so proudly "fathered." And strangely enough, Jefferson himself, was responsible for the delay of nearly a quarter of a century before the honor code was adopted at the University of Virginia.
We must question the exact location of Jefferson's tongue when he wrote these words, for no sooner had the university opened its doors than he announced, "We shall tighten or relax the reins of government as experience shall instruct us." And, evidently to give himself plenty of room for the relaxing, Jefferson started with an iron-clad straitjacket system of discipline.
Classroom Methods Incited Riots
Students were required to retire to their rooms at the sound of the college bell at 9 o'clock; to rise at dawn; to wear a uniform which they hated; and to remain at the university, bound to their studies, during the Christmas holidays, when even the slaves were tacitly granted all those privileges of freedom and indulgence which enlivened the season in every Virginia home. But the most despised feature of all was the method by which the European professors, whom Jefferson had brought from the Continent, conducted their written examinations. The students were allowed to bring only a pencil to the classroom, they were forbidden to speak, and the professors, operating in shifts, watched them with "lynx-like" eyes during the course of the examinations.
To understand the bitter resentment which this system created, it is only necessary to glance at one of the early rolls of the university. The men who were sitting in these classes were the youthful scions of the most prominent families in Virginia; here were the men whose families had made--and who themselves were to make--the history of the State. These young men had many faults--they were haughty, proud and high-spirited. But, whatever their faults in other directions, they held chivalrous notions of honor. Duelling with sword and pistol was such a commonplace among the students at this time that the mere possession of these weapons was made cause for instant dismissal.
The reaction of these young aristocrats to Jefferson's iron discipline, and particularly to the foreign professors' classroom reflection on their honor was instantaneous. The methods which they used to show their displeasure were characteristic of a group of head-strong youths. They dragged iron fenders over the brick pavements near the unpopular professors' houses; they hurled firecrackers at their doors and windows; they broke into their stables and clipped their horses' tails; they cut down their carefully planted cherry trees; they opened their chicken coops; and they pushed cows into their parlors late at night.
This continued with more or less regularity for 17 years. Jefferson died a year after the university formally opened its doors, but in that short time he had to sit in judgment on his own nephew whom he found guilty of leading a riot in protest against the European professors.
St. George Tucker Starts Honor System
In 1840, the last foreign member of the faculty resigned in disgust, but by this time the lines of battle had been so sharply drawn that neither the trustees, nor the faculty, not the students would retreat an inch. At this crucial moment, St. George Tucker, a recently appointed member of the faculty, who had not had time to take sides in the struggle and who understood the smoldering spirit of resentment and insurrection among the students, submitted the following resolution to the trustees: "In all, future examinations for distinctions and other honors in the University of Virginia, each candidate shall attach to the written answers presented by him in such examinations a certificate in the following words, "I do hereby certify on honor that I have derived no assistance during the time of this examination from any source whatever, whether oral, written or in print." This has since been amended to read, "I hereby certify on my honor that I have neither given nor received any assistance during this examination." Perhaps in desperation, the trustees immediately accepted Mr. Tucker's resolution, and the honor system at the University of Virginia was born.
We have no records of how the honor system worked during the first 25 years of its existence. But we do know that the students asked to be allowed to take the matter of disciplining violators of the honor code out of the faculty's hands, that the latter accepted, and that the students made immediate dismissal the penalty for breach of the faith which the faculty placed in the student body.
There is strong reason to believe that the honor system was almost immediately successful because, when we do begin to have written records--at the period just following the War Between the States--we find the code flourishing at its topmost peak. At no time before or since has the honor system been maintained with such fidelity, such jealousy, and such just intolerance as during the perod from 1865 to 1905. The men who entered the university at this time were the sons of men who had offered up their lives for a cause and these sons had learned, unconsciously, to revere the principles of honor and chivalry as exemplified by their fathers.
Influence of System Broadly Expanded
It was at this time that the influence of the honor system was broadly expanded. Heretofore, it had concerned itself only with classroom cheating but these young men, who watched their fathers wade through the "trial by blood" decided that the honor code should demand that every student conduct himself as a gentleman at all times. Not only were lying and stealing thus included in the code but gross insulting behavior to ladies was made cause for dismissal. Although a student was dismissed as late as 1907 for this last offense, I do not believe that a conviction could be secured for this offense today.
Only two major additions have been made to the honor code in the last 20 years. Because of the excessive drinking at the university, the varsity athletic coaches in 1916 demanded a written pledge of complete abstinence from all candidates for the different teams. this pledge became a part of the honor code and the records show a number of dismissals for breaking this pledge.
A number of years ago, after a rowdy Virginia dance, the students went to the faculty and asked to be allowed to conduct dances under the honor system. Thereafter, a student who went on the dance floor pledged himself not to have had a drink after 12 o'clock noon of the day of the dance. This dance pledge led to some of the most unfortunate cases in the history of the honor system. In more than one case a student was dismissed who wandered on the dance floor in a complete "blank" without the faintest idea where he was. Both the athletic pledge and the dance pledge were perversions of the real spirit of the honor system and the latter has been done away with entirely, and the athletic pledge is used only by two coaches.
There are many students who have gone to the University of Virginia for the full four years and have not understood the inner workings of the honor system; and there are those from other colleges who have picked up hearsay evidence about it and believe that its success is based on "tale-bearing." For the benefit of these two large groups I would like to point out just how it works.
The honor system is very simple in its operation. One student sees another cheating or conducting himself in a suspicious manner. He investigates as quietly and as speedily as possible, usually getting the assistance of another member of the class. When the suspected student has handed in his pledged paper, the student who has observed him goes to him and demands an explanation of his conduct. If the accused admits his guilt, he is ordered to leave the university within 24 hours. If he denies his guilt and makes an unsatisfactory explanation, his accuser simply informs him that the explanation is unsatisfactory. Then, the accused, not the accuser, gets in touch with the honor committee, which is composed of the student presidents of the five different departments--academic, law, engineering, medicine, graduate--and the secretary of the department in which the accused is a member. There is no "tale-bearing" here. The accused, in his own righteous indignation, demands an immediate opportunity to prove his innocence.
Secret Meetings Protect Accused
Meetings of the honor committee are held at night on the same day the charge is made. Meetings are usually held in secret to prevent any stigma attaching itself to a student tried and found innocent. But the accused may have a public trial before his entire class if he so desires.
The accused may bring as many witnesses as he wants but character witnesses are unnecessary as every student is deemed both innocent and a gentleman until proved otherwise. He may request the honor committee to postpone his case until he can secure the services of the family lawyer--or even Samuel Liebowitz--but usually he asks a friend or fraternity brother who is a member of the law school to conduct his case for him. The honor committee hears all witnesses, examines all the evidence, cross questions the accused and his accusers, and then retires for further discussion of the evidence. Sometimes this discussion may last hours, sometimes only a few minutes. But only one vote is taken and five of the six members must agree on the guilt of the defendant before he is found guilty.
If the student is found innocent, the minutes of the meeting are immediately burned in his presence and the members of the committee and all the witnesses crowd around to shake the innocent student's hand. There is no reason for the accused student to hold a grudge against his accuser because he knows that he would not have gotten himself accused had he not done something to arouse the other student's suspicions.
If the accused is found guilty, he is told to leave the university within 24 hours. The next day the chairman of the honor committee notifies the dean that so-and-so has been dismissed by the honor committee. From the decision of the committee there is no appeal--not to the faculty, nor to the president of the university, nor to the State Legislature, nor to any court in the land. No case is reopened unless positive relevant evidence can be introduced. In the last 10 years, two students once dismissed have had their cases reheard and the decisions reversed. In both cases, a group of doctors, including the college physician, testified that the student was of unsound mind at the time of the offense.
Naturally, any honor system collapses immediately if there is any hesitancy on the part of a student to accuse another of dishonesty. Many students have been dismissed for allowing violations of the code to continue with their knowledge. This is an essential feature of all honor systems.
Faculty's Confidence In Student Is Aid
No effort is made to hound a student with his disgrace after he is dismissed. His name is not even announced to the student body. The honor committee, which is elected by the student body, simply informs the guilty student that he is not wanted around the university and what he does after he leaves is of no concern to any one.
The successs of the honor system at Virginia is due in large measure to the complete confidence which the faculty has shown in the ability of the students to handle the problem. When a student sees another cheating, his first reaction is one of anger that the trust of the faculty has been betrayed. A short time ago, the dean of one of the departments at the university was asked if he believed in the honor system. His reply was, "Yes, as I do in the Christian religion." This might be said to express the feeling of the entire faculty.
Mellowing alumni, unable to boast of the prowess of the university's perennially poor football team sometimes turn to the honor system as a means of glorifying their alma mater. But when they get young graduates together they express amazement that as many as eight, or 10 or 12 students are dismissed by the honor committee each year; and their attitude is that the honor system is not working as it did in the "good old days."
Annoyed by this attitude and, at the same time anxious to find out if the records proved these suspicions to be grounded on fact, I recently completed a study of all honor committee cases for the past 16 years. I was relieved to find that honor doesn't vary much over a period of years.
In the last 16 years, 160 students have been dismissed under the honor system and, contrary to general opinion, more than half of these have elected to stand trial and attempt to "bluff it out." There were just as many students dismissed in 1921, for instance, as in 1934. The increase in the number of students at the university is offset by the lessening in burden that has been placed on the honor system in recent years.
No section of the country has a monopoly on honor--or dishonor. Those dismissed come from almost every State in the union and from such distant countries as Siam. But some very interesting figures are revealed when these sections are broken down. In the last 10 years only 26 students have been dismissed from the State of Virginia, and 60 have been dismissed from the combined States of New York and New Jersey. When you consider that over this same period the State of Virginia has contributed 51 per cent of the total enrollment and New York and New Jersey combined have contributed only 17 percent, the figures become alarming. Obviously, however, the students from these two Northern States are not, en masse, less honorable than the men from Virginia. The difference probably lies in the fact that the Virginia student knows that the honor system works, that it must be respected and obeyed; whereas, the Northern boy may think of it as a "blind" to allow cheating.
17 Largest Number Dismissed in Year
There has not been a student dismissed under the honor system from the medical school in the last six years. This fact is probably due to the requirement for admission that demands that the candidate submit a picture of himself along with his application. This requirement was put in effect six years ago.
Last year the honor system of the University of North Carolina collapsed with a frightful roar when more than 100 students were found guilty of a conspiracy to obtain examination papers in advance. From the wreckage, the students attempted to build another honor system, but it is doomed to certain failure. Virginia alumni, and others interested in the preservation of this method of student government at our State university, may be certain that if any such fate is destined for the honor system at Virginia that the students will voluntarily hand the problem back to the faculty and not attempt to work over the ruins.
Meanwhile the student body has redoubled its efforts to prevent such an occurrence. In 1931 the honor committee dismissed 17 students, which is the largest number ever sent away in a single year. At that time the committee pointed out the increasing lack of homogeneity among the student body and urged a slackening of the burden which the system was carrying. It was then that the dances were taken off the pledge and control of them given to a floor committee. The honor committee also pointed out at this time that the athletic pledge was a direct reflection on the coach who could not inspire his men to keep training without forcing them to sign a pledge. Most of the coaches then removed the pledge from their requirements for candidates for their teams.
This year a letter was sent to every parent explaining the workings of the honor system and urging them to go over it with their son. The incoming student signs the honor pledge when he registers. He then attends a mass meeting, where it is explained to him again. And, finally, the first year class is broken down into groups of 30 and the code is explained once again.
Less Glorifying Held To Be Help
Alumni and friends of the university can help in perpetuating the honor system by glorifying it less. There is nothing romantic or ethereal about the honor code. It is cold and hard and merciless and often cruel. It makes no distinction between men and boys. It is not a pretty sight to see a mother down on her knees, tears streaming from her face, begging for another chance for her boy. Alumni talking to students planning to enter the university should stress the fact that the honor system works and is not to be trifled with.
But human nature being what it is, it is safe to say that no amount of warning or advice will completely stamp out the evils which any State university must face. The honor committee had a case last year which put the fear of the Almighty into their hearts. A fully accredited student was found to be a member of a gang of thieves which operated in a Northern city. The Virginia student was the fence disposing of the goods among the students and sending a "cut" back to the gang. Here arose the first conflict in history between the honor committee and the faculty. They had a race to see which could dismiss the student first. And the faculty won.