UVA Honor Debate – Is the Single Sanction Too Harsh?

Perhaps one of UVA’s oldest institutions is the Honor Code, established in 1842 by Professor Henry St. George Tucker. In those times the University’s community was smaller and more homogenous, making it easier to maintain the University of Virginia’s values of integrity and trust. Over the course of nearly 175 years the community of trust has grown more diverse and competitive, putting the Honor Code to the test.

The University of Virginia’s single-sanction Honor system holds that a student shall be expelled from the University if he or she is found guilty of an Honor offense. As Thomas Jefferson said, “the earth belongs always to the living generation.” Each four years ushers in a new tide of students who decide how to shape the Honor system to suit the changing times.

In recent decades there has been democratic pressure from the student body to reexamine the severity of the single sanction system. Just recently in 2012 there was a campaign to allow students to come forward with Honor offenses, demonstrating the controversy of the single sanction’s strictness.

The Single Sanction Debate at Jefferson Hall. Owen Gallogly on the left, Jeffrey Warren on the right

In order to help clarify the issue, The Jefferson Literary & Debating Society held an informative debate on Tuesday October 24th 2017. The subject of debate was whether or not UVA should introduce an unspecified multiple sanction system in place of the single sanction.

Owen Gallogly, a member of the Jefferson Society, presented the affirmative on behalf of the single sanction. Jeffrey Warren, Vice Chair of the student Honor Committee, presented the negative on behalf of a multiple sanction. Mr. Warren’s goal was not to provide a specific alternative multi-sanction plan, only to illuminate the problems with the current single sanction system.


The debate began with Owen arguing to keep the single sanction system. The single sanction feature of the Honor Code is meant to safeguard the community of trust at the University of Virginia. The sanction’s severe consequences highlight just how important it is to keep a culture of trust rather than be seen as a harsh punishment that makes examples out of people.

At the conclusion of his speech Owen remarked, “though the system we have is not perfect, though it is in need of improvement and constant attention to its relevance, fairness, and effectiveness, it nonetheless remains the best way to give life to our shared ideals and safeguard our Community of Trust.”

For the opposing side, Jeffrey took a rather unorthodox stance as an Honor officer who actually would like to see the single sanction be reformed. “The single sanction is nice in theory and even something that I was convinced by until I saw how it plays out in practice. It makes the process long and arduous because when the sanction is so severe, the Honor Committee must provide a very high level of procedural due process.”

UVA Honor Pledge

During his speech, Jeffrey cited data explaining that about 41% of UVA professors suspected students of an Honor offense in a semester but only 16% of them reported it. Professors say that they don’t report students because  there isn’t enough evidence, the process is too time consuming, the punishment is too harsh, or they’re not confident that the jury will make a decision.

Jeffrey elaborated that “the single sanction has decreased faculty reporting rates to the point that the vast majority of faculty and students do not trust the Honor System and would rather find extracurricular ways to handle instances of lying, cheating and stealing. The result is then expulsion for the handful of students who are unfortunate enough to go through our system but for the vast majority of those who break the Honor Code, the result is no punishment at all.”

The opposing side did also remind the audience that UVA students are reported to cheat far less than at other schools. Although the goal of having a grounds be 100% free of lying, cheating, and stealing is nearly impossible, the effort is by no means without value.

To find more information regarding the Honor audit commission or the Honor offense trial process, please visit UVA’s website at http://honor.virginia.edu/audit-commission or subscribe to the honor newsletter at http://honor.virginia.edu/newsletter. Ultimately both sides agreed that the future of UVA’s Honor system is in the hands of the student body.


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