Behind a Law Student’s Drive To Change the UVA Honor System

A student at the University of Virginia School of Law has played a pivotal role in making a historic change to the University’s 180-year-old honor system.

UVA students voted on March 4 to approve an amendment to the Honor Committee’s constitution, replacing the single sanction, through which students were expelled from the University if found guilty of an honor violation. Now students who are found guilty will be suspended for two semesters, allowing them to return and complete their studies. It is the most significant change in the history of the honor system.

The proposed amendment and campaign to win approval from students was drafted and steered by third-year law student Christopher Benos, who has served the 27-member Honor Committee for seven years, three years as an elected representative, starting as an undergraduate.

Benos said he was inspired to suggest the change by Law School coursework focused on restorative justice, which focuses on repairing harm rather than punishing offenders.

“A university should be a place for students to learn and grow as they develop the skills necessary to contribute to the workforce and to civic life,” Benos said. “To cultivate honest and compassionate citizens, our community needs to foster integrity instead of simply expelling those who make mistakes. This obligation to teach is especially necessary because students come to the University from a wide range of backgrounds and cultural traditions that often differ in how they prepare students for the academic demands of UVA.”

Benos said he was also troubled by the disproportionate effects of expulsion on underrepresented students.

“For decades, the honor system has faced legitimate criticism for its documented effects on marginalized communities, as well as concerns about racism and other forms of bias,” he said. “Further work to rectify disparities will be crucial moving forward. But our coalition could no longer support a sanction which historically allowed, and could prospectively allow, the most severe outcome to fall disproportionately on some communities more than others.”

The finality of the single sanction punishment may have led community members to shy away from bringing charges and finding students guilty, he said, noting that student and faculty support for the system declined over time.

“Due to objections to expulsion as the only sanction, some faculty instead administered lesser academic sanctions on an ad hoc basis which invited inequity, limited faculty accountability, and afforded students no procedural protections or transparency,” he said. “And juries struggled to disentangle the weight of expulsion from the merits of the evidence before them. Lowering the penalty will eliminate many of the disincentives to reporting, reduce ad hoc punishment, and allow juries to more fairly weigh evidence.”

Many have tried to reform the single sanction before, and Benos said it took a major effort to succeed.

Benos first tried to advance the amendment through the Honor Committee, but was unable to secure the needed two-thirds support required for automatic inclusion of a constitutional amendment on a University-wide ballot. To put the amendment before the student body, he gathered more than 1,600 signatures to independently certify the reform for the ballot.

In the months leading up to the vote, Benos spearheaded a grassroots campaign to promote the amendment’s passage. He garnered public support from a near supermajority of the Honor Committee and unanimous support from UVA’s Student Council. He led a voter turnout drive and a press campaign targeting more than 20,000 students to inform the community ahead of the vote.

To pass an amendment to the honor system, at least 10% of the student body had to vote in elections, and of the students who voted, 60% had to approve the change. About 23.75% of the student body ultimately voted on the proposal, and 80%, or 4,811 students, affirmed the amendment.

Benos said the effort taught him important lessons as he graduates from law school.

“Change is a collective enterprise,” he said. “Only together, by leveraging diverse perspectives, compromising on policy decisions, organizing and voting can real change ever succeed.”

Benos was recently named a Schwarzman Scholar, which will fund his pursuit of a master’s degree in global affairs at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. The scholarship is among the most competitive and prestigious graduate fellowships in the world.

A law student has been involved in changing the honor system at least once before. Nine years ago, River Bellamy ’14 led a drive to implement an informed retraction option, which allows students accused of an honor violation to enter a guilty plea before an informal investigation begins. Under that option, students voluntarily leave the University for two semesters if they submit an informed retraction. When students passed the measure, also during a University-wide ballot, it was the biggest change to the honor system in UVA history.

Benos said changing the honor system is part of another core University tradition — student self-governance.

“The university belongs to students,” he said. “Our community should adapt to the needs of current students, and alumni should be proud of the democratic process by which students united behind this important change.”

Benos said future students should continue to improve the Honor System, and the University, over time.

“I hope that this campaign inspires future students to fight for what they believe in, improve the community, and ultimately leave our university, and our commonwealth, a better place for everybody,” he said.