The odyssey to honor


by Dr. Lewis H. Drew '60, retired Dean of Students

We like to believe that Hampden-Sydney College is timeless and enduring, but it is not. It evolved into the place we knew as students and has continued to flex and extend in many ways since we graduated into Hampden-Sydney Men. These changes, though, are slow moving, on a pace somewhere between the growth of an oak tree and the shifting of tectonic plates. The Honor Code at Hampden-Sydney and our student-run government are two systems that seem always "to have been," as if God made them on the eighth day.

In reality, they are much newer conventions. Dr. Lewis H. Drew '60 is intimately familiar with both the Honor Code and student government; as a student he was a member of the Student Council and an officer in his Senior Class. More importantly, though, he was the Dean of Students for 30 years. I asked him to write about the evolution of the Honor Code at Hampden-Sydney, to use his personal experience to give us all a clearer understanding of how this perpetual symbol of Hampden-Sydney College came to be. As he well illustrates, it was not an easy process. -Ed.

In your mind's eye, visualize your first glimpse of the College as you came onto the campus and looked upon that vast landscape. For many of us, this was an uplifting experience, a special moment that introduced us to a place that, as we continued our trek through the campus, more and more "looked like a college ought to look," a place we could very easily see ourselves calling our second home. Over the years I have heard many alumni mention that returning to the College and driving onto the campus, viewing that scene, brought back a flood of memories, lifted their spirits, and, simply, made them feel like better men.

Similarly, I have listened to them say that, whatever the setting, when meeting an alumnus for the first time, they sense an instant bond; they can assume he is a person of honor because of their common experience of living under the Honor System. In fact, surveys of alumni over the years have indicated that the Honor System is one of the most cherished aspects of their college experience. For me, an indelible memory of the seriousness with which many students take the Honor System is the interview one of my freshman classmates had with a newspaper reporter writing a story on our Honor System. He was quoted as saying he would rather cut off his arm than violate the Honor Code. That is serious.

More recently, former Student Government President Jonathan McGrady '91 was asked what the Honor System meant to him as a student and now in his personal and professional life, wrote:
"I would say that the Honor Code is the core of our Hampden-Sydney community that we hold so dear. It is what unites us, and keeps us so true to our values. The Honor Code becomes intertwined with each Hampden-Sydney man and forges the backbone of life."

William (Bill) Irwin '94, Student Court Chairman his senior year, responded to the same request as follows:
"I can still remember the night, as a newly minted member of the freshman class, that I attended the opening orientation program on the Honor Code. Following the program, we talked with members of the Honor Court and signed our pledge. Walking back to Cushing, I wondered if it would be possible not to fall on the wrong side of the Code. However, living in a community that believed in Honor ingrained a thought process and way of life into my and my fellow classmates' moral fiber. To this day, I know that the great majority of Hampden-Sydney men act with honor reflexively, not after considered thought, and it is that reflexive action which sets our students and graduates apart."

Has this level of devotion to the high principles of the Honor System always been this strong? If so, or not, how did the Honor Code evolve over the long history of the College? Well, as we shall see, it was an uneven process, with successes and setbacks along the way. However, there were core concepts inherent in the mission of the college that persisted as goals through the years among some faculty, staff, and students:
1.  Developing a strong sense of honor and propriety among students
2.  Having students play a significant role in their own governance.
Eventually, they bore fruit.

As I investigated the history of the Honor System, I relied on the narrative history of the College, On This Hill, by John L. Brinkley '59 to piece together some of the key steps in the development of the System and its philosophical, foundational principles. Hence, all page references are to this source.
Though the Honor System "did not appear in full form until the twentieth century" (p. 169), there were earlier indications that the seeds of a philosophy of how to handle student misbehavior were being planted, ultimately, over many decades, leading to what we would call today student government. A taste of this can be seen in a statement written in the 1820's about President Jonathan Cushing by his nephew and biographer, Dr. George W. Dame:
"As a disciplinarian, President Cushing had few superiors. He possessed that great secret of good government, knowing when, and in what manner to exert authority, to produce the greatest effect. He had adequately studied human nature, and knew well how it was modified in an assemblage of young men. Hence it was by considering the students as gentlemen, and treating them as such and by affectionate and conciliating manner towards them, that he was enabled to preserve order and harmony among them" (p. 123).

Thus, we can see herein the historic roots of the College's modern-day philosophy of respecting students as adults and permitting them as much freedom as possible, expecting high standards, and assuming everyone is honest and a gentleman until proven otherwise. Also, President Cushing understood the need for an appeals process and was willing to review disciplinary actions upon request.

Though it is not clear what the structure or procedure was, there was some student mechanism for expelling a student for lying during the presidency of Lewis W. Green (1849-56): "... Dr. Green was kindly midwife to what was maturing into the formalized student-run Honor System: lying had become a 'shipping offense,' if not by the Faculty, then by the students" (p. 191).

One can gain some insight into what attitudes student leaders had about matters of honor in 1868 when student William M. Thornton 1868 wrote:
"The life of the college is always what its best men make it. If they are brave, true, high-minded, relentless in rebuking baseness and falseness and cowardice, open and outspoken in their scorn for all that is secret and mean and low, the tone of the college will be like their own. Our alma mater was blessed in that day with a few such leading spirits, and to them, I believe, was due the rare nobleness of tone which then prevailed" (p. 330).

Mr. Thornton's point is as true today as it was in his day: one can usually measure the effectiveness of something like an honor system by the types of students elected to bodies such as an honor council. If students who are respected by their classmates and the faculty are elected, then there is a high probability that the system is sound and that students take it seriously.

In this same spirit of trying to establish a system of delegated, student self-governance, we can move on to about 1886, when Dr. Richard McIlwaine 1853 was president. He, as Mr. Brinkley describes, tried to form a student system-a collegiate senate, as it was called-with class representatives. The faculty, rightfully and traditionally a powerful factor in the governance of the college, approved this arrangement for one year but chose not to renew the experiment for a second year. President McIlwaine was disappointed, for he still viewed student participation in governance as a good thing. As Mr. Brinkley writes, "and thus died constitutional student government at Hampden-Sydney until 1920" (p. 461).

Despite this flicker of a system, human nature being what it was, and still is, there was the persistent problem of students resisting turning in one another or readily admitting to a possible conduct or honor-type infraction. Thus, as Mr. Brinkley writes, at least until the early 1900s, "The mix of President and Faculty with ad hoc student committees seems to have continued to deal with student disorder" (p. 465).

Nevertheless, the struggle to establish an effective student government continued in spite of what Mr. Brinkley describes as "intractable problems." In June of 1923 President Joseph D. Eggleston 1886 expressed his strong desire to see this come about.

"The deportment of the students during the past session has been, in the main, good. I believe the Student Council should be credited with its share in the general improvement. The Council has not received the support from all of the students that it should receive, but I believe there has been a growing sentiment in the student body to give the Student Council ample powers looking toward student government, and to give, also, the moral backing necessary thereto...those of us who have been here for the past four years, and who are in sympathy with the student government movement, are gratified at the gain that has been made. "Without going into details, I think it only fair to say that there seem to be two opinions here about student government. Those who are really not in sympathy with the movement can point to failures. Those who are in sympathy with it can point to a decreasing number of failures, and can also point to the fact that if student government has failed in some instances, the students would have a difficult time finding a complete absence of failure among their elders in the matter of obedience to the laws of the Federal Government, the states, the cities, the counties, magisterial districts, towns, and villages of this country. With the constant examples of disobedience to laws, and in many instances, of contempt for it, the wonder to it is, not that there is among a small minority of our students a disregard for some of the College laws, but that there is not much more of it. I am certainly not alone in feeling encouraged" (pp. 669-70).

Perhaps the best summary of the status of the Honor System in that era came from John W. Bishop '37, who in his senior year was both editor of the Magazine and President of the Student Council: "Although the Honor System at Hampden-Sydney is one of the most satisfactory, it fails to come up to the height that it should. The reason for its failure is largely due to lack of cooperation by the student body" (p. 672).

And, he continues, describing the role of the Student Council then, and, by chance, the role of the Student Court today, vis-à-vis the Honor System:
"The Student Council is to deal with violations of the Honor Code.

Fundamentally the Council should only handle lying, cheating, and stealing. In any of the cases named, the Council is not supposed to act as a police force, but rather as a body of judges. The members are not to be on the lookout for violations of the Honor Code to any greater degree than the youngest member of the Freshman Class. The Council was not intended to find cases of violations of the Honor Code, the Council is only supposed to try them when they are reported (p. 672)."

Bishop goes on to bemoan the frequency of cheating among students and their failure often to report possible violations. Then, he expresses his strong belief that the solutions to fixing these problems must lie with the students (p. 673).
This deep-seated institutional belief in students having a key role to play in their own governance and in instilling values and developing character as parts of the College's educational philosophy began to take its modern form under the presidency of Dr. Edgar C. Gammon 1905, 1939-55. In 1946, according to Mr. Brinkley, President Gammon said:
"Vigorous efforts have been made and are being made to instill into the young men the true meaning of liberty, the knowledge that rights without responsibilities are impossible. The method is not by rules and regulations but by counsel, advice, and conference. What we are seeking is student self-discipline growing out of the right sort of student government. There is no greater need than fine citizens and no better way to produce them than to teach in our Christian colleges the vital relationship between privileges and duties, rights and responsibilities" (p. 729).

Thus, the foundation and the philosophical bases were set for what we know today as a strong, student-run Honor System. But, the fits and starts of the past, the sputterings, the challenges to forming an effective system, were not over. For, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there swept across the land a general unrest in colleges and universities, challenges to institutional authority and a distaste for strong (or, at times, any) sanctions against those who violated rules. Part of this was fueled by opposition to the Vietnam War, activism in the civil rights area, and a general restlessness among the country's young people. At Hampden-Sydney indications of this spirit of protest among students were manifested in a number of ways, among them being a push to eliminate expulsion as the long-standing and only penalty for a student found guilty of an Honor Code violation; a desire for female visitation in the dormitories and fraternity houses; and a more generalized, but very serious, demand for what was called self-determination: more student involvement in the governance of the institution. This is a dramatic shift from the general student-held opinions of a century earlier.

In 1969, the single sanction-expulsion (dismissal from the College with no chance of returning) for an Honor Code violation-was dropped. In its place was established a "dual-sanction" structure, which permitted the Honor Council to impose either the penalty of suspension (for one, two, or more semesters, with the right to apply for readmission but no guarantee of acceptance) or expulsion. The idea was that adding the suspension option gave the Honor Council the flexibility it desired to adjudicate cases deemed less egregious. Also, seen as less extreme than the expulsion-only option, the dual-sanction system seemingly created less hesitancy on the part of students and faculty/staff to report possible violations.

Peebles Harrison '89, a former President of Student Government and now a trustee, had this to say about penalties, based on his experiences:
"A dual-sanction system is far preferable to a single-sanction system. Because of the draconian penalty, I believe faculty and students handle some matters themselves rather than turn them over to a single-sanction honor court. This all misses the point. Some of the guys I most respect from my days at Hampden-Sydney were those who made mistakes, learned from them, and returned to school to graduate."

Before the dual-sanction system settled in, though, there was in the early-to-mid 1970s some serious stress on our Honor System. This local unsettledness was a reflection of national trends, which resulted in many honor systems being dropped or modified; Hampden-Sydney's system was not immune. Not unlike some of the previously mentioned challenges to the system pointed out in Mr. Brinkley's book, for a brief time the Honor Council resisted applying punishment viewed as severe, e.g., suspension/expulsion. In some cases the Honor Council would uphold the principle of suspension, in deference to tradition, but would suspend the actual suspension. A student would be judged guilty, would officially be suspended, but would not actually have to leave the College. As strange as it may seem, out of this low point came reforms that began a turn-around, leading to a stronger system in the long run.

One change was the combining of the student Judiciary Board, which handled misconduct cases not covered by the Honor Code, and the Honor Council into one strong board, the Student Court. (Still today the Student Court adjudicates both Honor Code cases and serious misconduct cases arising out of the code of student conduct.)

Another significant change was the creation of a more formal, detailed training program for student leaders, including workshops, off-campus retreats, and meetings with the late Royal E. Cabell '43, lawyer and long-time trustee, who for many years led sessions with student leaders on the legal, moral, and ethical aspects of the Honor Code. He also stressed the student leaders' responsibilities to the Honor Code and the College, including the responsibility to educate students about the Code.

However, even considering these increased efforts, the resulting strengthening of the system would have been less likely had there not been some key student leaders at that time who had the moral courage, the maturity, and the deep appreciation for the importance of the Honor System to the heritage and the character of the College. Over time, they helped restore faith in the System and in the capacity of the students to run it effectively. They understood that the key was to sustain the students' sense of ownership of the System as theirs and not as something imposed "from above."

Nationally, judicial and academic integrity councils or boards are typically comprised of a combination of students, faculty, and administrators. Hampden-Sydney's students-only panel, the Student Court, while not unique, is atypical. Granted, the students' authority to administer the Honor System is delegated from the trustees to the faculty to the student government, but the authority is real, even though it can be revoked if the System ever breaks down. However, the fact that their authority is real generates among the student leaders, in particular, a sense of pride and an acceptance of the serious responsibilities they have to the College and to their fellow students to administer the system well.

Perhaps there is no better example reinforcing this sense of student ownership than the difficult and demanding role played by the President of the Student Government. No one else may charge a student with an alleged violation of the Honor Code (lying, cheating, stealing) other than this student government officer. After a suspected violation is reported by a student or faculty/staff/community member and a preliminary investigation is conducted by the president, he, alone, determines whether to drop the matter or to charge the student and send the case to be tried before the Student Court.

Also, emphasis in training programs was placed on having student leaders understand and accept that administering discipline was an opportunity to teach a lesson in hopes that the student, held accountable for his actions, would learn from his mistake and be a stronger, wiser, and better person in the long run. It was crucial, in my opinion, to have the leaders view themselves as fostering, through discipline, institutional mission, the "good man, good citizen" goal, and not to see themselves in the narrow perspective of simply meting out punishment. It was also important that they understand they were helping set community standards through their actions on individual cases.

As one looks back at the history and evolution of our Honor System, just like the College, it has survived many challenges, only to rise over a long history to its present-day position of strength. Of course, while there is no way to document for certain at what level the majority of students over the years have "caught" the true spirit and idealism of the Honor System, the evidence available indicates most have. It is fair to say, I believe, that hardly anyone could attend Hampden-Sydney for any reasonable length of time and not be aware that the Honor System is taken seriously by all constituencies and is seen as an integral part of the institution's mission, "to form good men and good citizens in an atmosphere of sound learning," a gem of a mission statement. Instilling a sense of honor is a defining institutional value. The "good man, good citizen" concept, of course, is broader than honor and encompasses many qualities the College desires to instill in it students. For, how can one be a good man and good citizen without having respect for oneself and others, a desire to serve others, and a commitment at some level to a worthy cause bigger than oneself?

The underlying aim of the Honor System and of the College is not just to foster a community of trust within the Hampden-Sydney community at a particular period of time, as noble as that is. It is, in addition, intended to inculcate a lifelong commitment to all the values inherent in the mission statement, not just honor. It is about how one is to live his life.

Upon reflection, we come to understand that the greatest gift to every student who enrolls in Hampden-Sydney is offered that first night during freshman orientation, at the Honor convocation. It is this: that no matter his past, upon signing the pledge that night in front of student leaders and his classmates, he is assumed to be a man of honor. Thereafter, only he, himself, can take that gift away by his failure to live up to the precepts of the Honor Code.

At the other end, commencement, the hope is that every graduate will have learned that the underlying aim of the Honor System is to send men out into the world who understand, more broadly, that honor is its own reward. The Honor System is a means to an end: creating good men and good citizens, honorable men, Hampden-Sydney men, for life.