That picture includes the buttoned-up McCay, whose serious demeanor comes from respect for an institution that itself is actually quite unconventional. At UNC, it is students who charge, prosecute, defend and sentence their peers who are accused of violating the Honor Code.
Few universities entrust this responsibility entirely to students, and it’s hardly child’s play. At UNC, those accused of violating the Honor Code are considered innocent until proven guilty — and the burden of proof is high.
This may not seem revolutionary; it is, after all, how we expect real courts to work. But many colleges’ discipline systems look downright draconian compared to UNC’s. Ours, in McCay’s words, sees its role as “investigating the facts and trying to find the truth.”
So why, then, given such admirable aims, has UNC’s honor system been the target of so much criticism of late?
Much of this criticism came after the news that the honor system had failed to catch a blatant act of plagiarism in a paper by former UNC football player Michael McAdoo. McAdoo was found guilty only of receiving impermissible help with citations — the charge for which he was called before the Honor Court.
McCay maintains that this wasn’t the result of incompetence or carelessness. Nor, he said, is it because the idea of a student-led system is inherently flawed. Instead, the honor system’s failure to find McAdoo’s plagiarism is a function of the very principles that make it so remarkable.
In the real world, few people would disagree that it is unfair to search someone’s car for drugs after pulling him over for speeding, or to only conduct such a search if the person is of a certain ethnicity or driving a certain model car.
Likewise, it would be a slippery slope to routinely do a plagiarism check on all papers turned in for citation violations. It would be even more unfair to do this only for a certain kind of person, e.g., football players.
McCay puts it simply: “We’re in the business of equitable treatment of students.” This is yet another principle most of us take for granted. But when one considers that it is upheld in a quasi-court system run by college students helping out in their spare time, the honor system seems more miraculous by the minute.
That’s not to say that the system doesn’t have flaws, ones McCay admits readily. He acknowledges that the office wasn’t prepared for the scrutiny it faced during the football scandal, and he hopes for better outreach under his tenure.
“I want the student body, the faculty and the administration to feel as though they can engage in an open dialogue and discussion.” He got off to a good start earlier this week, appearing at the Chancellor’s Open House.
There, listening to students and faculty, McCay demonstrated a firm grasp of an important idea: like the government institutions it mimics, the power of UNC’s honor system comes from the people it serves.