The student-run Honor System is at the heart of the Virginia experience. Through the years it has been described as the "most priceless of heritages," a "fundamental cornerstone" and the "most unassailable of the University’s core values." The Honor System makes possible a community of trust among students in which members are assumed to be men and women of integrity who never lie, cheat or steal—or tolerate such acts among their peers.
The history of honor at the University—a principle that’s evolved from a pledge to a code to a system—is a complex story. Over the years, thousands of U.Va. students have responded to the challenge of ensuring a strong sense of honor. It has not always been an easy endeavor, with debates and disagreements frequently stirring the waters.
It is widely believed that the murder of law professor John A. G. Davis on the Lawn by a student during a November 1840 uprising prompted the creation of an honor pledge two years later—a pledge that proved to be the seed of the Honor System we know today. Historic documents, however, tell a different story. A close reading of the faculty minutes from those years, in addition to student letters and diaries, does not reveal any connection between the murder and the Honor Code’s inception (except that Davis’ replacement proposed the pledge).
On a now historic date—July 4, 1842—the faculty agreed to the creation of an honor pledge requiring students to affirm that they had neither given nor received aid on exams. The action addressed repeated reports that some students had been caught cheating. The new pledge would appeal to one’s honor, a principle already vital to many students well before 1842. The link between the murder of Davis and what would become the University Honor System appears to be a 20th-century narrative grafted onto past events.
It can be argued that the beginning of the Honor System at the University dates rather to March 1825, when the first student had his name entered in the matriculation book. By entering his name, the student pledged to support the University’s principles, ideals and regulations—rules that forbade lying to professors and cheating on tests.
More important than the origin of the Honor System, however, is its survival into the 21st century—the triumph of ideals over the tribulations of changing times. Perhaps most challenging today is the fact that many students, for various reasons, appear reluctant to report violations of the Honor Code. In a sense, recent surveys indicate it has become something of a dishonor among some students to uphold the Honor Code by informing on a classmate. To be sure, all who care deeply about the Honor System at the University understand that there are formidable hurdles before it. But if the past is any guide, students will always be willing to step forward and provide the leadership necessary not only to keep honor alive at U.Va. but also to leave it stronger for those who follow.
THE EVOLUTION OF HONOR TIMELINE | BEGIN >
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Honor Code timeline here [pdf]