Honoring the code

After two years at the University of Virginia, it took just one afternoon for Daniel DeDeo's view of his college world to spin off its axis.

On a serene spring day last year, Mr. DeDeo received a phone call from his girlfriend. A professor had just accused her of plagiarizing a paper from the previous term.

After they hung up, the phone rang again – and again. Dedeo soon had heard similar news from no fewer than 15 friends, two of whom were fraternity brothers. Not only had they all been accused of plagiarizing a paper – the charges concerned the same paper, in the same course.

By day's end, at least 120 students stood accused. And DeDeo, like many of his friends, was left with a surreal feeling that his treelined campus, created by Thomas Jefferson and situated in this sweet-smelling pocket of central Virginia, was beginning to resemble an academic police state.

The charges, investigations, student trials, and findings of guilt and innocence have played out with dramatic intensity here. U.Va.'s honor system is one of the oldest in the country, and mandates the expulsion of any student found guilty of lying, cheating, or stealing. Many faculty and students believe the stiff uniform system creates an enlightened atmosphere of trust and respect.

Yet others are calling for change. Some question whether an honor system conceived in the antebellum South remains relevant. Students and faculty say they're often reluctant to charge students with violations because the sole punishment, expulsion, is so harsh. Some students also believe athletes and minorities are unfairly singled out for scrutiny. And the incidents of cheating, critics say, show the system is not taken seriously.

Regardless of where they stand, however, the cheating has forced many members of the U.Va. community to take a sobering look into the soul of the school itself.

Books and bottled water

It's 11 a.m., and Clemons Library is full. The overflow of students studying for finals seek space on the library's roof, which affords a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Monticello, the hilltop home of the University's founder, Thomas Jefferson. Inside, students are surrounded by essential supplies: books and bottled water.

The library is a cross-section of student life. Most men have on khakis and oxford shirts; nearly all the women wear their hair up. Many of the students' notes are indexed and highlighted; their laptops hold 50-page outlines. Some conduct study sessions via cellphones.

It is often repeated on campus that U.Va. students work hard and play hard. Here, cubicles and group tables offer key access to bound volumes and friends. "This is one of the few schools where going to the library is really cool," says Anh Doan, a second-year student from Martinsville, Va.

For all the attention to coursework, many of these young men and women seem more like professional students than curious intellectuals. They spend as much time rising through the hierarchy of campus groups as they do hitting the books, observers say. A cafe was recently installed in an adjacent library to help strengthen the school's "intellectual community," an element of college life outsiders might assume was a given for one of America's top-ranked public institutions.

Academic and social demands are intense. Ms. Doan seems to be seeking shelter from both. She sits quietly on the floor beneath her desk, her feet propped up on a chair.

"Look around you," Doan says, looking bemused. "Everyone is so smart and involved in everything. There's a lot of pressure to be something successful."

That pressure might partly explain the statistics that appeared on Lou Bloomfield's computer screen last April. After learning of possible incidents of cheating in his introductory physics course, "How Things Work," Professor Bloomfield designed a computer program to detect similar phrases in students' term papers.

Applying the program to 1,500 papers from four semesters of "How Things Work" yielded startling results: More than 100 papers showed overlaps in sentences, paragraphs, and entire compositions. A refined search turned up a higher number of problematic papers later.

Bloomfield had confronted cheating in the past, primarily incidents of students failing to cite secondary sources. But he had not realized it had become as widespread as this suggested.

"It was new to me that people were recycling papers," says Bloomfield, who speaks with a wide-eyed enthusiasm about most subjects. "For me, it amounted to a failure of society to question what a degree means."

Bloomfield did not teach during the spring semester, in part to allow him to testify in a total of 158 student-run honor investigations. He says he chose to charge the students with violating the honor code in order to support the academic integrity of the institution. So far, 93 have been exonerated, 41 have dropped out or been expelled, and a degree was revoked from one student who had graduated.

"The existence of the whole system is evidence that cheating is truly not acceptable here," says Bloomfield.

Most students agree. Walk through the library, and students' appreciation for the system is clear. Having promised in their admission application never to lie, cheat, or steal, students may take exams unproctored.

The trust extends to other areas as well. Corcoran Canfield was elated to find on a library table money she left the previous day. The third-year student from Alexandria, Va., taped an appreciative message onto the desk: "This nickel is still here! Yeah honor system!"

Irrational exuberance

Student exuberance for what is essentially a punitive system might seem out of place on most college campuses. But many of U.Va.'s students were drawn here by the tradition. "You have some students who want it to be the same university their ancestors had," says Brandon Almond, editor of the Cavalier Daily student newspaper.

Others read larger significance into their honor code. For some of these self-consciously conservative-minded students, maintaining the system represents a last stand against moral relativism in academia. Permissive systems of justice anticipate dishonorable acts, they argue, and do their best to accommodate nearly all of them.

"Students at the university live in an atmosphere unfettered by distrust and temptation," according to the Honor Committee's own website.

Students have defended the system from those who would dumb it down. Their most recent stand: Two-thirds of all voters rejected a February referendum that called for a possible punishment of suspension, rather than expulsion, for accused students who confess their transgressions.

"We have a community of trust here," says Justin Ferira, a neatly dressed second-year student, whose Charleston, S.C., high school had an even stricter honor system. "When you trust those around you, they will often live up to that trust."

In practice, however, many students are reluctant to bring the system to bear when that trust is broken.

Anand Jain chose not to pursue honor charges after witnessing several acts of cheating among students in his statistics class. The second-year student from Virginia says he would have identified the students if their punishment could have been limited to a failing grade.

"The way the system is now, faculty and students don't want to deal with it," says Mr. Jain, his bushy eyebrows raised in frustration. "It's easier to say that we live in an honorable society and leave it at that."

Andrea Dickens, for her part, does not regret her decision last fall to go around the honor system to handle an incident of lying. "Intervention was a much better solution in this case," says Ms. Dickens, a teaching assistant in the religious studies department whose gauzy, flowered skirt seems eccentric on a campus dominated by designer sundresses. "I found out there was a lot going on in the student's life."

Signing on the dotted line

The honor code was started in 1842, when a professor instructed students to write a note on each exam stating they had received no help. (See box, right.) Students write the same pledge today.

The original campus still defines school character. Known as the Lawn, the historic expanse of terraced grass is framed by white-pillar colonnades and red-brick pavilions. A statue of Homer sits at its south end. The Rotunda, a Romanesque replica of the ancient Palladium, lies at its north.

The architecture instills the university with an appreciation for classical themes. The elegant structures seem to whisper a moral: Principle is beauty.

Sarah Rude is among an elite group of fourth-year students chosen to occupy tiny student rooms on the Lawn. She wears red pants and red shoes – a sharp contrast to the decorum of her surroundings.

Ms. Rude believes that the school's honor system has failed to adapt to the contemporary student body. "The system is set up for an antiquated ideal," says Rude. "It needs to take into account people's good and bad sides."

A few hundred feet away, Erin-Marie Burke lies on a blanket in the center of the Lawn. She is studying for her final in minority politics. In a few minutes, she plans to meet a friend for ice cream.

Ms. Burke believes the system works – well enough for her to leave her possessions unattended. But she believes some groups of students are unfairly singled out. "Certain communities have been stigmatized," she says.

Black students and parents in particular have said that students and faculty unfairly accuse minority students of honor violations. Of the 196 honor investigations since last April, 20 percent of students investigated were black and 10 percent were Asian, according to the Honor Committee; blacks comprise only 7.6 percent of the student body, and Asians 7.3 percent.

Athletes are also conscious of being vulnerable. "People think we're dumb and that we'll do anything [to get a good grade]," says Molly Urlock, who received a scholarship to play lacrosse.

If the values of U.Va.'s student body – initially all-male and aristocratic – were once relatively uniform, they are now varied. Today's students bring to campus nuanced perspectives on crime and punishment, as well as on the credibility of accusers and the accused.

Critics argue that the process of distinguishing dishonorable behavior has been complicated by the diversification of experiences, priorities, and values on campus.

"Students here cheat less, and take honor seriously," Brandon Almond says. "But many people want to see the school's good-old-boy network updated."

No group on campus seems more primed for change than the faculty. Sixty-three percent of faculty favor implementing a multiple-sanction system, according to a 1999 survey by the Honor Committee. Student juries do not convict some students who are clearly guilty, many faculty say, because they think expulsion is too severe.

"From my discussions with faculty, I get the impression a lot of people have a problem with a single sanction," says Robert Davis, an environmental sciences professor and chairman-elect of the faculty senate.

The incidents of cheating have broadened that concern, faculty say. Since last April, many professors have granted students less freedom. "First-year students now think it's normal for a professor to ask, 'Did you write this?' " says Burke, who serves as a residential assistant in a dormitory for first-year students.

In the fall semester last year, Heather Warren stopped allowing students to take their exams outside class because of evidence that some had intended to cheat on a test. "I realized I wouldn't be able to let people walk anymore," says Dr. Warren, an associate professor of religious studies. "This has affected the whole university."

Some students blame faculty for being naive about cheating. "There was a well-developed culture of cheating in that course," says third-year student Justin Bentley of Winterhaven, Fla., in regards to Bloomfield's physics class.

But given the relatively small number of students who did cheat over the four-term period he examined, Bloomfield counters, there could not have been such a culture.

Still, at the beginning of the fall semester this year, Bloomfield, for the first time, prefaced his initial lecture with a short discussion of the honor code. He plans to continue to begin future courses with the talk. (To view Bloomfield's first lecture last fall, go to http://rabi.phys.virginia.edu/105/2001/schedule.html. His discussion of the honor system begins at 13:50 minutes into the lecture.)

Despite the turmoil, most people at the school believe the system might work best by being left alone. Few think that cheating happens here more than at other schools, and even critical students leave the university cherishing the honor code as though it were a foundational document of the nation itself.

During the last week of finals this year, students painted a message on Beta Bridge, a tiny structure on the edge of campus that has become something of a bulletin board for campus causes and collegiate enthusiasm.

It read: "Bloomfield Honks! – Thanks 105." A heart sign punctuates the end. Bloomfield believes most students appreciate the stand he took in Physics 105.

"This was a way of maintaining the community of trust," Bloomfield says. "It's an active commitment we have to renew all the time."

• Send e-mail to pauln@csps.com

Honor code history

• Prospective U.Va. students must sign a statement in their admissions application that includes the following passage:

"I agree to support and abide by the Honor System, which prohibits lying, cheating, and stealing. I understand and accept that the Honor System is administered entirely by student representatives, including investigations, adjudication and appeal review, and that violations will result in permanent expulsion and revocation of any University degree."

• Students are asked by most faculty to write and sign this pledge on all graded work:

"On my honor, as a student, I have neither given nor received aid on this assignment/exam."

• On November 12, 1840, Prof. John Davis was shot to death on the university's Lawn. No one came forward to claim responsibility for his murder, prompting student-faculty relations to grow more tense.

• On July 4, 1842, Prof. Henry St. George Tucker offered the following resolution as a gesture of confidence in students: "...resolved, that in all future examinations ... each candidate shall attach to the written answers ... a certificate of the following words: I, A.B., do hereby certify on my honor that I have derived no assistance during the time of this examination from any source whatsoever."

• Tucker intended the resolution to govern conduct only in the classroom, but students soon took it upon themselves to apply it to life on campus in general. They began administering the system themselves.

• In 1952, the Bad Check Committee was established to help students maintain the ability to write checks in the community, requiring only that they show a student ID.

• In 1969, the system was revised to cover only honor violations committed within the boundaries of Charlottesville and Albermarle County, in which U.Va. lies, or wherever students represented themselves as U.Va. students.

• In 1977, the student body ratified a written constitution that guaranteed students certain rights during the trial process and accorded the student body the right to change the system or override the honor committee by popular referendum.

• In 1980, students were given the right to choose a trial panel composed of a mixture of randomly selected students and honor committee members, rather than just committee members.

• In 1990, students approved a referendum giving accused students the option of choosing an all-random student panel.

• In the fall of 1994, under the threat of a lawsuit, U.Va.'s board of visitors allegedly forced the honor committee to grant a new trial to Christopher Leggett, who had been dismissed from U.Va. the previous year after being found guilty of cheating. The move challenged the tradition of student self-governance of the honor system, given that the committee had no bylaw permitting new trials. Mr. Leggett was later found not guilty in a new trial. A few students found guilty of honor charges have since filed lawsuits against the university, primarily arguing the system did not grant them due process.

Source: The University of Virginia Honor Committee; The Washington Post

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