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The Daily Tar Heel

Honor system lacks clarity

Is anyone else not really sure how UNC’s honor system works?

Sure, we’re used to signing honor pledges and are told that the system has been student-run for 130 years.

And there’s a lengthy “Instrument of Student Judicial Governance” with lots of rights and responsibilities (a constitution of sorts for the honor system) that one can read online.

But what exactly happens to those accused of breaking the rules? What punishment meets which crime? And do accusers and accused generally leave satisfied that justice has been served?

The answers to all of these questions matter: we’re talking about a system that allows students to throw other students out of the University, and that imposes judgment for offenses varying from plagiarism to rape.

With less than 200 cases in each of the last few years, the vast majority of students at the University will never go before the Honor Court.

The budding inquirer is understandably excluded from Honor Court proceedings, since the University has a legal duty to each student to protect the privacy of their educational records.

So this leaves the honor system’s student leadership with a responsibility to educate and enlighten the campus on a system which takes place behind closed doors. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.

As the football debacle developed last fall, Sarah Core and Travis McElveen (then student attorney general and Honor Court chairman, respectively) maintained a stoic silence about all things honor system.

One can understand their reluctance to risk any legal violation by revealing protected details of the then-ongoing football cases, even accidentally.

And, for sure, not all the reporters played entirely fair. Pushing for as much information as legally possible is one thing, but I felt distinctly uneasy when the Daily Tar Heel sent reporters to stake out entrances to the protected Honor Court hearings.

But Core and McElveen missed a stunning opportunity to teach the campus about the honor system, at a time of greatest attention.

What better a time to explain and publicize how the honor system functions, than when the whole community (and even national media) is interested?

Transparency about public process isn’t just there to satisfy puerile nosiness — it is fundamental to the respect and authority of public institutions.

And it’s ingrained in the fabric of this University, in our motto “Lux libertas”: light and liberty.

I am reminded of the words of the British historian Lord Acton, referring to judicial process, that, “nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.”

We need more openness about our rare student-run judicial system, if we wish it to be strong for another 130 years.

Here’s hoping the honor system’s new set of student leadership will rise to that challenge.

Mark Laichena is a columnist from The Daily Tar Heel. He is a senior political science and PWAD major from London, UK. Contact him at

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