Debunking the Honor Council

How does the process work and what are the punishments?

By Izzy Ercan and Sarah Friedman

As its name suggests, the Undergraduate Honor Council is the organization on campus that is tasked with upholding and protecting the University’s honor code. But that is all many Vanderbilt students know about it. What does the 60-plus student member organization entirely comprised of upperclassmen really do? The Hustler had the chance to ask junior Katie Williamson, president of the Undergraduate Honor Council a few questions about her organization.

How often does the honor council meet? Is there a schedule or is it case by case?

“We meet in various capacities. The largest part of our meetings are on a case by case basis when students serve as panelists or peer advisors, but we also meet as a General Body on at least a monthly basis to refresh members’ training, plan outreach events and keep the Council up to speed on the status of the Honor System.”

What type of cases does the Honor Council hear?

According to Williamson, the Honor Council most often hears cases of receiving or giving unauthorized aid, and plagiarism, however the amounts and types fluctuate from semester to semester. The Council also hears cases where “students failed to report offenses that they had knowledge of, actions designed to deceive a faculty member, falsification of class records, submission of work prepared for another course and other Honor code violations.”

Katie Williamson, president of the Undergraduate Honor Council

What does the process of going through the Honor Council look like?

This is a summarized version of the procedure given by Williamson. Note that the entire process can be found in the “Procedures of the Undergraduate Honor Council” section of Chapter 2 of the Student Handbook)

The process begins after the accuser and the accused have already met with an investigator from the Office of Student Accountability, Community Standards, and Academic Integrity. The accused student is assigned a student advisor from the Honor Council who will help guide them through the process. The investigator then presents the Statement of Charges to the accused, after which they will be able to explain the event in question and answer any questions from the investigator. The accused is allowed to name any witnesses they would like the investigator to meet with and speak on their behalf in front of the Honor Council Panel. The accused can also bring up any relevant materials during their meeting with the investigator, and is asked to enter a preliminary plea of guilty or not guilty. The investigator then compiles all the relevant information from the case, including transcripts from meetings with the accuser, witness(es) and accused student(s) into an investigative packet and gives it to the Honor Council President for review. If there is enough evidence to proceed, then the case goes to a small or full panel (comprised of members of the Honor Council), depending on the case. This panel then meets at a scheduled time with the investigator and members of both parties to read the investigative packet, hear testimonies, and ask questions. The panel then deliberates and informs the student and their advisor of the decision.

What are the punishments handed down by the council?

Penalties for guilty offenders vary, based on “flagrancy of the violation, the premeditation involved in the offense and the accused student’s truthfulness throughout the process,” says Williamson. Another important point is repeat of offense. Logically, repeat offender’s penalties are much harsher than first timers. The options for offenders include a reprimand with a recommended failure on the assignment (up to the instructor), a recommended failure of the course, up to one or more semesters of suspension, and in extremely rare cases, expulsion. The minimum penalty for a second offense is a one-semester suspension, and the minimum penalty for a third offense is expulsion.

Stats of the Honor Council:

Over the last 4 years, the council has reviewed on average 78 cases per year. And as the council prides itself on its ability to hear both sides of the case, from the accuser and the accused, notably 16% of all cases over the last four years were either dropped or resulted in not guilty verdicts. For guilty cases, the most common penalty was the “failure in a course” option; two-thirds of all guilty cases were given this punishment.

Which kinds of difficulties are associated with being a student member of the honor council? Do you ever feel awkward or uncomfortable disciplining fellow students? How are these concerns dealt with?

“As an Honor Council member, we do have to enforce penalties on students who violate the Honor Code, but we also are able to clear the name of students who are innocent. That being the case, while there can be difficulty in the panel process as we all empathize with the stress of Vanderbilt, there’s also a lot of satisfaction in maintaining students’ integrity. Our whole General Body chose to serve in this way because we believe that a culture of honesty is core to Vanderbilt’s merit as an institution, so we focus on the goal of maintaining the value of our whole community’s degrees.”

What else should students know about the honor council?

“The biggest message I would convey is that, while disciplinary by nature, the Honor Council also has a pedagogical role on our campus. We strive to promote integrity, not only in our academics, but also in students’ lives to build their character beyond Vanderbilt’s campus, as well as foster trust in peer and faculty relationships. Our website, as well as our office and members, are always resources for students who have questions about the Honor Code, and we welcome conversations about the various ways integrity permeates our Vanderbilt experience.”

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Izzy Ercan (2019) is a writer for the campus section of the Hustler. He is from Coral Springs, Florida and is a junior majoring in Political Science and Violin Performance and a minor in Spanish. He will go to law school if the football team goes .500 this year and hopes to go into a public policy career at some point in the future. He enjoys writing for the Hustler and hopes his classmates are more informed about the university because of the publication's work.