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UVA students voted for a referendum that reduces the penalty for students found guilty of honor code offenses.

Joe Sohm/Visions of America

University of Virginia students voted by a wide margin earlier this month to stop expelling students for honor code violations, amending the institution’s 180-year-old “single-sanction” rule.

The amendment to the Honor Committee Constitution, which students approved during a three-day spring election, would reduce the penalty for students found guilty of honor code offenses from expulsion to a two-semester suspension, meaning students could return to UVA to finish their degrees.

UVA students have voted on changing the policy at least 12 times before.

In order for the referendum to pass, at least 10 percent of the student body had to vote in the election, and 60 percent of those needed to vote in favor. More than 6,000 UVA students voted on the proposal, which UVA Today, the university’s newsroom, reported is 23.75 percent of the student body. Over 80 percent of those who cast ballots—4,811 students—voted in favor of the change.

Honor Committee chair Andy Chambers said the committee is beginning to address questions about the referendum—including when changes will go into effect—but he expects most decisions to fall to the next Honor Committee, whose members were elected during the spring election. Any academic integrity cases brought forward after March 4 will fall under the new referendum.

“Much of this will be the job of the next committee, the students who have been newly elected,” Chambers told UVA Today. “Right now, we are waiting to hear full confirmation of the election results, a few formal steps, and then will begin addressing updates as we can.”

The referendum was drafted by Christopher Benos, a third-year law student and member of the Honor Committee. The referendum ​​is rehabilitative and will give students a chance to learn from their mistakes, he wrote. It will also allow for more reporting of academic dishonesty, he said; students are more likely to turn in their peers if they’re not responsible for getting them permanently kicked out of the university. He told Inside Higher Ed the result of the referendum is inspiring and a first step towards a fairer, more equitable, more compassionate honor system.

"The vote’s historic margin provides a clear mandate moving forward, one that compels UVA to implement more rehabilitative and compassionate educational policy," Benos wrote in an email. "And the referendum’s passing proves that students, as the next generation of leaders, are committed to collective action and democratic change."

James Orr, vice provost for academic affairs and strategic enrollment at the University of Memphis and a member of the International Center for Academic Integrity’s Board of Directors, said the UVA vote reflects a broader movement in higher education to view academic integrity violations as teachable moments. He said honor systems are now asking how students can be held accountable for academic misconduct but still be allowed to return to the campus community.

“The UVA student vote is aligned with where honor codes are headed,” Orr said. “What would be considered a more modern honor code—where you hold students accountable for academic misconduct, but holding them accountable doesn’t always mean immediate expulsion.”

Orr said there are many reasons why students commit academic misconduct—including that they don’t understand what constitutes plagiarism. He said expelling students isn’t the best way to get them to understand what they did wrong.

“I think it’s positive to see that the student body at UVA is voting to take a much more educational approach to academic misconduct,” Orr said.

Honor codes are usually the best mechanism for creating a culture of integrity, Orr said, and UVA has one of the oldest honor codes in the U.S. He noted that many institutions consider UVA a paragon of academic integrity, a place where students, faculty and staff openly discuss the subject on campus.

“UVA is an institution that has a long history of a strong honor code and a strong culture and community that supports academic integrity,” Orr said. “In fact, the culture of academic integrity at UVA—and when I say culture, I mean in terms of student awareness of academic integrity—is what many institutions aspire to.”

Many at UVA—including Rector Whittington W. Clement, President Jim Ryan and Honor Committee chair Chambers—urged students to vote in the spring election, regardless of their opinion of the referendum, UVA Today reported.

Members of UVA’s student council passed a resolution in support of the referendum and called on students to vote “yes” to the amendment change.

Gabriela Hernandez, the chair of the student council’s representative body, urged students to support the amendment during a March 1 student council meeting during which she questioned the very validity of UVA’s honor code.

“How much do you really trust students if you say that any mistake against the honor system will result in expulsion?” Hernandez said during the meeting. “This is superficial trust that I argue affects honor’s work.”

Hernandez also argued that UVA’s honor code is not applied fairly across the board. She pointed to a bicentennial report data analysis from the Honor Committee, which found that between 2014 and 2016, Asian or Asian American students, who make up 11 percent of the student body in 2016, accounted for nearly 53 percent of sanctioned students who were expelled for academic misconduct. Likewise, between 2010 and 2013, 18 percent of Black students were sanctioned for academic misconduct though they made up just 6 percent of the student population in 2013.

“As a student of color, these numbers are disturbing,” Hernandez said. “How can an organization make decisions that disproportionately affect marginalized student groups and call that ‘fair and just’?”

Orr said from a national perspective, the best honor codes value inclusivity and equity. By using honor codes to help students learn from their mistakes, institutions can develop a response appropriate to a student’s situation.

“Sanctions that can take into consideration a student’s circumstances and the opinions of the faculty, and then identify what the most educative sanction is—those are sanctions that are very much equity minded, and those promote student well-being.”

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