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Honor Should Be the Core Of Who We Are

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

Honor Should Be the Core Of Who We Are - And American Colleges and Universities Need to Return to Single Sanction Systems

Ken Hirllinger '85

“A Cadet does not lie, cheat or steal; nor tolerate those that do.” If the VMI system has stayed the same as when I was a Rats in the 80’s, these words, the Honor Code, are thrust into a Rat’s mind the moment they are given their Rat Bible. I distinctly remember on Matriculation being given mine, and told to open to the Honor System and immediately study the words, know the framework of the Honor Code, and memorize the Honor Court members. As I progressed down the concourse to the barber shop, I was reading those words and the idea of the single sanction honor system, when an upperclassman started grilling me with “what’s 82+3”. When I answered and was told that number did not exist, I was dropped for pushups. Then it was repeated, and having the honor code on my mind, I once again answered and was once again dropped. It took a couple times until I got the acceptable answer.

Later that night our Rat Mass was marched into Jackson Memorial Hall. The impressive silence was broken as the Honor Court marched in with their hard shoes beating in unison. Then the Honor Court President reinforced the words we had been learning all day. It was clear VMI wasn’t an ordinary place and those rising to its standards would be identified uniquely to each other throughout their lives. It was also clear that the high standards that were expected would not be met by some. As time progressed the Rat Line hardened our bodies and the camaraderie of our Brother Rats bonded us in a way unlike other colleges. Yet what really kept each of us grounded was the Honor System especially when we witnessed our first Drum Out.

I distinctly remember those drums as they woke the Corps. As Rats we formed on the Stoop; Band Company was on the Third Stoop and I could look up to the Fourth Stoop where my lifelong best friend strained. With the final drum beat, silence ensued and the Honor Court marched in, now with crisp marching sounds in the open sky but all the more impressive. The next words cemented our school as being unique. The Honor Court President, strides around the Sentinel Box saying in a loud clear voice something to the effect of, “Tonight the Honor Court has met, and found Cadet, the name no longer remembered, guilty for stealing. His name shall never be mentioned within the walls of Barracks again.” As this first drum out was happening a shooting star flew across the sky. While I am not superstitious, I likened what was happening to that star, something that shined bright for a short time but now was forever out of sight.

Many years have passed, and the Washington Post has done numerous hit pieces on VMI. One of them the result of cadets who were found guilty of honor violations though their sentencing was overseen by VMI’s administration therefore I believe in the result. These individuals decided to further ruin their honor by not accepting their mistake and accepting the outcome they should have learned that first day. The rest of us get it, to wear the Ring is to walk a tight line and to be recognized throughout our lives by other Alumni and VMI supporters as people of our word. But, this isn’t to say that forgiveness doesn’t also exist.

I have known a few former cadets who were drummed out. One was my roommates’ Dyke, another a swimming family’s brother. While we would never expect to see them at VMI, seeing them in the real world is different; they can and did repent and went on to great things. They were given the opportunity by another school. Since, in those days many schools had respectable honor systems, I believe these individuals learned and made themselves better.

What’s needed in today’s higher education is a return to single sanction honor systems. When a student breaks that school’s rules, they should be dismissed. Should another school give them an opportunity, hopefully, the student will be repentant and lead an honorable life until they graduate. Should they continue to violate their honor, then they should again be dismissed. And, if no school is willing to give them a third try, then the individual has defined themselves in a manner in which a different career path is likely the right approach. One where they don’t face choices of lying, cheating, or stealing to get through college. In this manner, Single Sanction Honor Systems can benefit America as it strives to compete against nations who routinely outscore the USA in education rankings.

Founded in 2021, the Spirit of VMI PAC is a registered Virginia Political Action Committee whose purpose is to restore VMI’s reputation as an elite leadership institution.

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