The Honor System
Washington and Lee is distinguished by a handful of ideals-honor, civility, and integrity among them-from which its singular culture unfolds. Honor pervades every aspect of life, deepening relationships and allowing uncommon intellectual freedoms. Civility and integrity create the conditions for mutual trust, resulting in an open community and a rich, frank exchange of ideas.
Robert E. Lee is often credited with creating the Honor System during his tenure in the 1860s as president of what was then Washington College, based on his edict that "we have but one rule-that every student must be a gentleman." In fact, the earliest evidence of an academic Honor System dates back to the 1840s. As president, Lee took deliberate steps to encourage students to take responsibility for their own conduct, based on his belief that "as a general principle you should not force young men to do their duty, but let them do it voluntarily and thereby develop their characters." His leadership fostered the tradition of student self-governance that remains a hallmark of the institution today. In 1905, the student body assumed direct control of the Honor System by forming the Executive Committee of the Student Body, manifesting Lee's vision of student accountability.
The Honor System today is an all-encompassing system of trust. Since a central implication is that students will not lie, cheat, or steal, members of the W&L community take one another's words and actions at face value, inside the classroom and out.
The system is entirely self-regulated by the student body, with no faculty or board of trustees oversight. Those found guilty of violating the community's trust are asked to leave the University. In the classroom, there is never doubt about the authenticity of student work. Professors confidently offer unproctored or self-scheduled exams, students don't worry about leaving their personal belongings unattended, and most campus buildings are accessible 24 hours a day. As a Washington Post headline put it in 2012: "Washington and Lee's honor system the real deal."
The Honor System has been a central feature of Washington and Lee University for well over a century. Thousands of students have lived under it while in residence, have been morally shaped by it, and as alumni and alumnae, continue to be guided by it in their professional lives. Current students are as committed to it as were those who lived and studied here before them, and they maintain with firm conviction this distinctive ideal of the University.