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Posted March 11, 2013

How a Law Student Changed UVA's 170-Year-Old Honor System

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Frank Bellamy

Second-year law student Frank Bellamy instigated one of the most significant changes to the honor system at the University of Virginia in recent memory when students approved his ballot proposal for an "informed retraction."

When second-year law student Frank Bellamy had the rare opportunity to observe an open honor trial at the University of Virginia last November, he watched as a group of student jurors questioned two classmates accused of cheating on a biology exam.

Contact: Mary Wood

"The jurors were the primary people asking questions," he said. "The jurors I saw were very active and very engaged with the details of what happened and who was sitting where in this classroom, so I was very impressed with them."

Open trials in UVA's student-run honor system are fairly rare because, due to privacy laws, the accused student or students must agree to open them to the public. Bellamy attended as part of his research on lying and the honor system for a paper he was writing for the Law School's First Amendment Clinic, an experience that left him unusually well-informed about the system.

So when he heard about a new proposal that would replace randomly chosen student juries with elected Honor Committee officials, he was concerned. Established in 1842, UVA's honor system features a single sanction — expulsion — for students found guilty by their peers of lying, cheating or stealing. Part of what makes UVA's honor system unique is that the process is entirely run by students.

Would the system still be fair with an elected, possibly less-diverse jury, Bellamy wondered?

"Having a jury of random students is going to result in a different view of the community of trust than having a jury of people who have self-selected because they want to uphold the community of trust," he said.

What happened in the next few months led to one of the most significant changes to the honor system in its 170-year history.

The "Restore the Ideal Act," which was put forward by current Honor Committee members, had tied the elected jury idea to a second proposal, the "informed retraction." The retraction would allow a student to enter a guilty plea after being accused of an honor violation but before a formal investigation begins. In this option, students would leave the University for two semesters.

"The informed retraction sounded a lot more promising and I didn't see a reason why they should be voted on together," Bellamy said.

He wrote a Cavalier Daily editorial in opposition to the jury reform piece in December, but the editorial didn't draw a response.

"I let it sit until the spring, when the conversation around the honor reforms really got going," he said.

Bellamy had recently read the Honor Committee's constitution as part of his research paper on the legal treatment of lying, comparing the honor system and the federal Stolen Valor Act, which criminalized lying about military medals or honors. The Supreme Court said the act was unconstitutional in U.S. v. Alvarez in 2012.

Through his research, Bellamy knew if he could collect 10 percent of the UVA student body's signatures in support of an amendment to the Honor Committee constitution, the students could vote directly on a stand-alone informed retraction, without also voting for elected juries.

Bellamy submitted his proposal to the University Board of Election on Feb. 10, and with a Feb. 15 deadline, he and a group of about a dozen student volunteers managed to gather more than 2,100 signatures from across the campus.

"I realized pretty early on I had to focus on Central Grounds" to collect enough signatures, he said, noting there are only 1,100 students at the Law School. "I wasn't sure when I handed it all in whether I'd gathered enough."

He and other law and undergraduate students who offered to help targeted students in large lecture classes in which professors allowed Bellamy a couple minutes to explain the petition and pass around the paperwork, as well as by canvassing sites on Grounds like Alderman Library and Newcomb Hall.

It worked. Two weeks ago, in the University-wide election, 64 percent of the 8,441 students voted to approve the measure. Either proposal needed 60 percent of the vote to pass. The Restore the Ideal Act received about 41 percent of the vote. (For more, see UVA Today, "UVA Students Approve New Honor Plea, Reject Jury Changes")

"I was surprised, happy, impressed that the student body was able to give such serious consideration to all the issues despite the fact that it was on the ballot in the same year as the Restore the Ideal Act … I had not thought that it was going to pass," he said. "A lot of people are congratulating me on this, which has been very nice."

The Honor Committee enacted temporary bylaws after the vote to incorporate the amendment before the newly elected committee takes over on April 1, when they are expected to make the changes permanent. The details of how the retraction would work mirror the original Honor Committee proposal.

"I'm certainly pleased with the change. I think the honor system is better with informed retraction than without," Bellamy said.

Does it spell the end of the single sanction – one punishment for UVA law students who lie, cheat or steal?

"That is something people will disagree about," Bellamy said. He noted that the single sanction is still the only punishment for students convicted of violating the honor system. "In that sense, the single sanction is still there."

Students also will retain the option of the "conscientious retraction," which allows students to confess to an honor violation in advance of being suspected. Students who choose this option must accept the consequences (such as failing a class), but aren't required to leave the UVA community.

Bellamy said he didn't spend much time at all thinking about UVA's honor system until the leadership crisis with President Teresa Sullivan over the summer.

"I gained a new respect for the system and the concept of honor," he said.

Before attending UVA, Bellamy, a Tyson's Corner, Va., native, majored in computer science at the University of Delaware. He decided to go to law school because "I wanted to make more of a difference in the world than I was with what I was doing — I know it's very clichéd."