To Govern Each Act by a High Sense
of Honor

As a functional model of mutual trust and peer-accountability, the honor system is limited to a select group of schools. But it doesn’t have to be.

By Nathaniel Clarkson

Students studying on the Lawn at U. Va., where the honor system allows students to leave valuables in public places with little concern for theft.

At Washington and Lee University students take final exams without a professor watching over them to catch cheaters. Students leave laptops unattended in the library, or even outside on the picturesque colonnade, without worrying about them disappearing.

During social gatherings of University of Virginia students it’s common to see a heap of Patagonia fleeces and Barbour jackets piled high on a couch near the entrance while partygoers carry on without concern of theft.

Cadets at Virginia Military Institute leave their barracks rooms unlocked. Cadets are obligated to not lie, cheat or steal.

Ipods in the lost-and-found. A dollar bill pinned on the bulletin board. Unproctored exams. The honor system on campus manifests itself in many ways. That such a culture of trust could actually work in practice is a foreign concept to many unfamiliar with the honor system.

At many universities, unlocked dorm rooms would be a sure target for theft. Unproctored exams would likely facilitate widespread cheating, and unattended valuables would be more likely to wind up at the local pawn shop than the lost-and-found.

Under these traditional honor systems, alleged violators appear not before a school administrator but a board of their peers. For those found guilty of an honor violation, there is only one punishment – expulsion.

Sigma Nu is born out of the VMI honor tradition

Browse Sigma Nu’s governing documents and it becomes clear that Hopkins, Quarles and Riley were influenced heavily by the honor tradition at VMI. The Fraternity’s governance structure is clearly a product of the peer-accountability culture that defines the Institute.

“Some sports, however, rely upon an honor system for fair play. Golf provides perhaps the best example of an honor system that works remarkably well in practice.”

The Fraternity regards its initiates and collegiate chapters as self-governing; initiates are expected to govern each act by a high sense of honor. Should they not, it is the responsibility of their collegiate chapter to hold them accountable.

Though the Fraternity’s honor system bears close resemblance to that of U. Va., VMI and W&L, key differences exist. For instance: Sigma Nu’s accountability procedures allow for a sliding scale of punishment rather than a one-strike expulsion penalty.

This one-strike expulsion penalty is a major point of concern among critics who cite a compelling paradox: the fear of expulsion may undermine one of the honor system’s core components – self and peer-reporting. When violations are not reported because of this fear, an opportunity for development and learning may be missed.

The love/hate relationship

The Robert E. Lee statue on the colonnade at Washington and Lee University. Lee is widely credited with instilling the honor system during his tenure as president.

At first glance, the general idea of an honor system, particularly as it shapes the heritage of these highly-regarded schools, appears universally cherished by students, alumni and faculty alike. Prospective students learn about the honor tradition during campus tours and admitted students continue absorbing the culture through orientation and beyond.

Dig a little deeper, however, and one finds that sentiment toward the honor system is nuanced with a variety of opinions. A healthy contingent of students and faculty advocate that the system have a wider scope by applying to conduct on and off-campus and to academic and non-academic activities.

But this opinion is not shared by all. Experts on academic integrity believe that the one-strike expulsion penalty is anti-developmental as it leaves little room for educators to help young students learn from their mistakes. Advocates counter that expectations — and the penalty for violations — are made clear even before students arrive for orientation; by matriculating at these institutions, students know the rules and the penalty in advance.

“The cornerstone of the Virginia plan,” write education historians John Brubacher and Willis Rudy, “was the principle that the student was to have complete freedom of choice in the lectures he chose to attend.”

Lesser controversies arise periodically too, and realities of contemporary campus life — social media, students’ right to privacy, and liability obligations — only compound the issues. Twitter, Facebook and other networks have shed light on student conduct issues, for example, creating an increased obligation for administrators to respond.

And, of course, the honor system is not immune from those who would abuse its privileges: administrators cite students who twist the spirit of the honor system to thwart responsibility on matters concerning student conduct. Incidents have occurred in which students avoid responsibility for serving alcohol to underage peers by taking a guest at his word rather than checking his ID. And, in response to inquiries about potential violations, students have at times responded with “I would rather not say,” citing a loose interpretation of right to privacy laws and rights intended to protect from self-incrimination.

One of the more intriguing moot court questions surrounds university athletic teams. Is an athlete who plays by the spirit of the game, say, a baseball player who missed third base rounding the bags, guilty of an honor violation for failing to self-report?

The honor pledge hangs in a classroom at W&L.

Some sports, however, rely upon an honor system for fair play. Golf provides perhaps the best example of an honor system that works remarkably well in practice. One of the more famous examples dates back to the 1925 U.S. Open when Bobby Jones assessed himself a one-stroke penalty after his ball moved as he took his stance in the rough. No one else had noticed, but Jones reported the infraction anyway.

Other critics have pointed out how the honor system can inadvertently reward cheaters. A student who uses prohibited assistance on a take-home exam, for example, receives an advantage over his classmates. Cheaters gain an even greater advantage when performance is evaluated on a curve. Those few who operate outside the honor system — cheaters, thieves, and so on — can easily take advantage.

Yet studies show that the academic honor system functions quite well most of the time, despite temptations. In a 1999 study, academic integrity experts Donald McCabe and Linda Trevino concluded that students are less likely to cheat under honor codes than other governance models. Despite that positive conclusion, McCabe and Trevino express reservations about trying to implement a traditional honor system at established schools. According to their study, honor systems work best when they emerge organically and become ingrained in the school’s culture.

This research is encouraging, but the biggest controversy remains, one that sparks more debate than any other: Should the honor system govern student behavior off-campus, or is it limited to matters of academic integrity?

Jefferson, U. Va. and founders’ intent

We get a hint of the honor system’s intended scope by examining the difference between an honor code and an honor system. “When I think of an honor code I imagine a pledge that is limited to governing the integrity of academic affairs,” says Clay Coleman, Director of Student Activities and Greek Life at Washington and Lee University. “When I think of an honor system,” he continues, “I see an ideal setting that transcends a single place, governing both academic integrity and personal behavior regardless of the location.”

Coleman sites the early history of U. Va. in supporting this wider scope for the honor system — one that would govern student conduct, but not limited to place or to academic integrity.

Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia, was an early advocate of the academic elective system that allowed students to choose a concentrated area of study. “The cornerstone of the Virginia plan,” write education historians John Brubacher and Willis Rudy, “was the principle that the student was to have complete freedom of choice in the lectures he chose to attend.”

According to Brubacher and Rudy, “The whole philosophy of the University of Virginia curriculum was based on a confidence in the maturity of the student.” Jefferson sought to emulate the German university system with its emphasis on “specialized training for the mature student.”

“Applying the principles of the Honor Code to the world we live in today is a major source of discussion among the Corps.”

Proponents believe that this concept of trusting college students as mature adults supports a wide scope for the honor system – such a governance structure would surely expect students to hold each other to the highest standards of academic integrity and personal conduct, regardless of location or circumstance.

Yet a closer look reveals an even more complex story: When the University of Virginia opened in 1825, by signing the matriculation book, students pledged not to cheat on exams or lie to professors. The original honor pledge at U. Va. made no mention of personal integrity beyond academic performance.

It was not until 40 years later that students and faculty began to regard the honor pledge as all encompassing. Reports The University of Virginia Magazine spring 2008 edition: “In the decade or so following the Civil War, the Honor Pledge proved to be the seed of a broader Honor Code that informed student behavior outside the classroom.”

The history of honor at Washington and Lee University tells a similar story. Though the legacy of Robert E. Lee reminds students to display gentlemanly behavior at all times, the actual language of the W&L honor pledge itself appears limited to academic affairs (“On my honor, I have neither given nor received any unacknowledged aid on this exam, test, paper, etc.”). But there’s more to this story, too.

An honor violation at W&L today is defined as a “breach of the community’s trust” as determined by the current students. So W&L’s Honor System is fluid and emergent, allowing for change with each generation of students. (This ability to adapt over time is another characteristic that distinguishes an honor system from an honor code.) The honor system at U. Va. has undergone similar changes over the years.

And so the answer to this question — what was the intended scope of the honor system? —remains murky. History and interpretation vary from one institution to the next, and opinion within each school depends on who you talk to. It’s no surprise, then, that the proper reach of the honor system continues to stir debate today as it did back then.

Does the honor system effectively govern student behavior off-campus?

Universities with strong, student-run honor systems are, of course, not immune to issues of student misconduct such as alcohol misuse and sexual assault that occur on all campuses. Their ability to use their honor system to address these problems is a major advantage, however.

“The whole philosophy of the University of Virginia curriculum was based on a confidence in the maturity of the student.”

One institution with an honor system is taking aggressive steps to address a sexual assault rate higher than the national average. Another is trying to reform a deadly campus tradition in which seniors attempt to consume a fifth of liquor before kickoff of the final home football game.

“That schools [with honor systems] have student conduct boards at all should tell us that the honor system is falling short of governing student behavior off-campus,” observes Clay Coleman. On the other hand, many student life professionals credit the honor system with allowing them to form stronger relationships with students by removing the burden of top-down discipline. Regardless, student misconduct remains a problem administrators are obligated to address.

In recent times, institutions with honor systems have had to contend with occurrences of drunk driving, hazing and even the alleged murder of one student by another.

While the honor system is no panacea for student misconduct, most agree that it is a valuable institution, worthy of preservation. And many believe that fraternities can pay a key role in strengthening such systems of student self-governance.

Future of the honor system – Fraternity as the remedy

Recognizing this need to preserve an important part of their cultural backbone, schools with honor systems have begun various initiatives to minimize the occurrence of misconduct by encouraging students to apply the honor system in all aspects of their lives, not just on campus.

And a few student life offices, particularly resourceful in their approach, have taken to leveraging values-based organizations, including fraternities, as natural partners for the strengthening of their honor system.

Every year W&L hosts a “Day of Dialogue” in which students, faculty and other stakeholders discuss an issue affecting the larger community. In recent years, the student activities office, in a partnership with the interfraternity and panhellenic councils, has used “Day of Dialogue” to discuss “taking honor off-campus.” The program encourages students to watch out for their friends at off-campus functions through the lens of upholding honorable conduct in the manner intended by Robert E. Lee. W&L has also seen success with a program called Green Dot that calls on students to be aware of and avoid bystander behavior, a situation that occurs when onlookers fail to assist someone in need or challenge aberrant conduct.

At U. Va. student life professionals have seen success with similar programs that encourage students to apply their fraternity ritual beyond the chapter room. “The challenge rests in fostering a culture that embraces the spirit of the system that transcends the literal interpretation of the policy,” observes Mike Citro, assistant dean of students at U. Va.

“Our vice president for student affairs often refers to this idea as distinguishing big “H” honor from little “h” honor.  A similar parallel exists in fraternity and sorority rituals. Members can perform their organization’s ritual each semester and, in so doing, they are participating in ritual. However, there is a big distinction from participating in an occasional ceremony and living the ritual by embracing the values that are the cornerstone of the fraternal movement.”

Sigma Nu’s heritage of self-governance shows how Hopkins, Quarles and Riley were influenced by the honor code at VMI.

“Applying the principles of the Honor Code to the world we live in today is a major source of discussion among the Corps,” explains VMI cadet Quinn Adams. “The Honor Court has been exploring ways to expand the definition of honor from a set of negative rules (i.e. “A Cadet will never lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do”) to a greater definition of what an honorable cadet should do,” he continues. “We hope to educate the Corps on using the Honor Code to produce a group of cadets that will not only commit to not lying, cheating, or stealing, but will carry themselves as gentlemen and ladies, and strive to be individuals of high morals and ethics.”

The students and administrators are not alone in their belief in the value and relevancy of the honor system. In addition to the universities mentioned here, honor systems exist elsewhere.

Sociologists and economists have long highlighted the unique atmosphere of honor and trust among Jewish diamond traders in New York. “Diamonds are portable, easily concealable, and extremely valuable, thereby rendering courts powerless in policing diamond theft and credibly enforcing diamond credit sales,” writes Barak Richman of Duke Law School in a 2005 report. According to the report, these Jewish diamond merchants have been leaders in the industry by placing a high value on reputation and maintaining the community’s trust. These ideals echo closely the defining characteristic of an honor violation at W&L — “a breach of the community’s trust.”

“We hope to educate the Corps on using the Honor Code to produce a group of cadets that will not only commit to not lying, cheating, or stealing, but will carry themselves as gentlemen and ladies, and strive to be individuals of high morals and ethics.”

Recently, many onlookers around the world seemed surprised to learn about the lack of looting following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. During the coverage, reporters and other commentators pointed to Japan’s deep-rooted respect for personal honor and the high regard for reputation and self-regulation that comes along with it.

What about Sigma Nu? How can the Legion of Honor — the only fraternity founded on the honor principle — promote this unique culture of trust and accountability? As usual, it starts at home.

Chapters can illustrate for their communities that self-governance works by understanding the Fraternity’s disciplinary procedures and using them without hesitation when necessary. We can educate our new Candidates, and constantly remind Initiates, about Sigma Nu’s heritage, rooted as it is in the honor tradition of VMI. To this, Sigma Nu owes its success.

We can follow the example of W&L’s “Day of Dialogue” and host an all-campus LEAD session that educates stakeholders on the ideas of mutual trust and peer-accountability that comprise the honor system and have brought great value to our society.

And we can emphasize the lifetime commitment made by each Knight at initiation. Just as W&L students are encouraging their peers to “take honor off-campus,” and U. Va. students are asking each other to apply their fraternity ritual outside the chapter room, Sigma Nu should make it known that initiates have vowed to govern each by a high sense of honor, during college and beyond.

Members in the Legion of Honor should seek out opportunities to spread the honor system with the aim of building a culture where honorable behavior is not a surprise but a basic expectation.

When Bobby Jones assessed himself that 1-stroke penalty during the 1925 U.S. Open he went on to lose the tournament in a 36-hole playoff. When asked by a reporter if he should be lauded for his decision to self-report he replied, “You might as well praise me for not robbing banks.”

7 Responses to “To Govern Each Act by a High Sense
of Honor”

  1. Ernie Hall Says:

    Great article! We do need to remember we are to be truly honorable in all aspects of our lives both personal and professional and by doing so we can make a difference in our great society!

  2. Brian Bell EM 1347 Says:

    It seems like a lot of our chapter are reading this and taking it to heart. I’m excited to see what will stem from this reminder to act in Love, Truth, and Honor. Thanks!

  3. Jim Grinias Says:

    The investigation of the Honor System at UNC is currently a major focus of not only the administration, but also faculty and students. Due to the recent athletics investigation, the University has been forced to ask itself if the current Honor System is broken. New University committees are being formed as we speak to study the issue further, so it will be interesting to see how (or if) policies are changed in the future (the current system is vaguely similar to Virginia).

  4. Greg Underhill HK-09 Says:

    This is a great article and one I hope all chapters will discuss. Honor and ethics go hand in hand and we see our country suffering from a deficiency in both.

  5. Chuk Campos ZI 447 Says:

    Excellent article. Thank you. It’s not always easy to do the right thing. Yet, in the end, it’s much more important to consider “who” we are as opposed to “what” we’ve become. This is one pillar of three we have been taught to live by at Sigma Nu – love, truth, honor – three wise principles that serve us well.

  6. Brian Patterson, KN4 Says:

    Excellent article with some outstanding points. Choosing the harder right over the easier wrong is a phrase I’ve encountered over the years. This phrase summarizes for me a daily decision making process. The Army Values (I’m in my 27 year of service) also provide great guidelines to live by: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, Personal Courage. Love, Truth and Honor are our three founding principles, and are just as relevant today, as they were in 1869.

  7. 7 Tips to Ace Finals Week « Serve In The Light of Truth Says:

    [...] scholarship file for future brothers who take the same class, provided they meet your school’s honor code [...]

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