The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Tuesday, June 04, 2002  

The Virginia Honor Code in the 21st Century

The honor code of the University of Virginia is once again mired in controversy.

Established in 1842, the honor code is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, still in use among American institutions of higher education. The honor code forbids lying, cheating, and stealing, and tolerating others who do, while the student is at U.Va., off grounds in the city of Charlottesville or Albemarle County, and, if beyond these confines, while otherwise representing the university.

Administered by the students and governed by the honor committee, the code’s most controversial feature is the single sanction -- expulsion -- available to the committee as punishment for those found guilty of violating the code.

U.Va. students agree to comply with the honor code upon applying to the university and then pledge their adherence to the code on all major assignments, including term papers, and examinations, which are often given in the absence of proctors.

How things work

"Honoring the Code," by Noel C. Paul in today's edition of The Christian Science Monitor provides a thorough examination of the history and administration of the honor code. According to Paul's report, the latest ruckus over the honor code arose after a massive scandal last year when more than 120 students were accused of plagiarism, all on the same term paper submitted in the same course at the end of the same semester.

The course, “How Things Work,” apparently had a reputation among U.Va. undergraduates as a easy mark for cheating, what with nearly 400 students taking the course each semester and the papers having been graded by several different graduate assistants. Learning this, Bloomfield created a computer program designed to detect similar phrases in his 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,” writes Paul. “A refined search turned up a higher number of problematic papers later.”

“It was new to me that people were recycling papers,” says Bloomfield. “For me, it amounted to a failure of society to question what a degree means.”

With an astonishing 158 of his students facing honor code investigations in the 2001-2002 academic year, Bloomfield was relieved of his teaching responsibilities in the spring semester in order to testify in the proceedings. According to the Monitor, of the cases concluded so far, 93 students have been exonerated, 41 students have withdrawn or been expelled, and a degree was revoked from a student who already had graduated.

The relevance of a 19th century relic

The honor code was established in 1842, two years after Professor John Davis was shot to death on the Lawn amid a season of poor student-faculty relations. Most students and faculty members assumed -- or knew -- a student was responsible for Davis’s death, but the perpetrator refused to come forward, nor was he turned in by anyone else.

The majority of students cherish the code as a working system of justice that distinguishes U.Va. from other schools and creates an atmosphere of trust and respect. Others wonder whether the code, “conceived in the antebellum South,” is still relevant and workable today. And some students believe athletes and minorities are unfairly singled out, even monitored, by students with ulterior motives.

The code’s sole sanction has been controversial for decades and proposed changes that would expand the honor committee’s range of penalties have been voted down, usually by wide margins, each time they were presented to the student body (faculty members do not vote on proposed changes to the code). The latest vote, in February, asked students to authorize the penalty of suspension for accused students who confessed to their transgression. The proposed change was defeated by a two-to-one margin.

Although students are obligated to report apparent infractions of the code by their peers, as a practical matter many are reluctant to file reports because of the severity of the single sanction. Typically, only the most egregious violations are reported.

“Despite the turmoil, most people at the school believe the system might work best by being left alone,” writes Paul. “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.”

Let tradition and honor prevail

Although the Monitor’s report was thoughtful and comprehensive, we take issue with a few aspects of the article.

TRR’s editor maintains, without equivocation or hesitation, that the honor code appeared to be functioning properly and well during his studies at U.Va. No incident of cheating was observed and the security of one’s personal belongings was never in doubt. Now, this was some twenty years ago, and things very well may have changed since then, but there is a climate of trust at U.Va. that is almost immediately perceptible and greatly appreciated by the students.

Paul’s article places considerable emphasis on the challenges posed to the honor code by the increasing diversity of the student body. In our view, this is misguided.

He writes:

“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,’ [student] Brandon Almond says. “But many people want to see the school’s good-old-boy network updated.”

Paul is dancing on the head of a multicultural pin here. His praise of the “varied values” and “nuanced perspectives” are as much excuses as they are explanations. And the notion that students from different backgrounds are unable to make the same judgments as to what is or is not “dishonorable behavior” is patronizing. Moreover, the suggestion that the honor code stands in the way of breaking through the “good-old-boy network” is absurd.

One could fairly assume that the larger number of students who are neither male nor aristocratic (nor “white,” a minor attribute implied but not mentioned) should lead to greater compliance with the honor code. Indeed, the “good-old-boy network” likely prevents many infractions being reported, as each protects his own in an atmosphere that is visibly clubby. The way to challenge this network would be to ensure compliance with the honor code from all students, and cross-cultural reports of genuine infractions, likely to be less onerous or feared from a social perspective, are one way to facilitate such change.

Moreover, Paul failed to recognize, let alone mention, the existence in the honor code of the toleration clause -- a student doesn’t lie, cheat, or steal “nor tolerate others who do.” The language makes clear that those who cheat and those who fail to report them are both violating the code in equal measure.

As a result, Paul cites one student, Anand Jain, who elected not to make an accusation of honor code violations he witnessed specifically because of the single sanction, without cognizance of the fact that Jain’s inaction was itself a violation of the honor code. Perhaps the student’s pity quote fit altogether too neatly into the article: “The way the system is now, faculty and students don’t want to deal with it. It’s easier to say that we live in an honorable society and leave it at that.”

We feel compelled to point out one glaring, though not particularly important, error in Paul’s article. He writes that while on the rooftop of Clemons Library one is afforded “a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Monticello, the hilltop home of the University’s founder, Thomas Jefferson.” Paul is confused. There is a stately residence, visible from the library’s roof, that is located on a hill to the west of the grounds, and another, visible from parts of the Lawn, that is to the south. But neither is Monticello. Alas, one simply cannot see Monticello from the grounds of the University of Virginia.

We remain among those alumni who continue to support and revere the honor code as it is now written and as such we urge the students at U.Va. to remain steadfast in their opposition to enacting changes that would undermine its integrity. We further urge students to live up to the demands of the honor code, not only by resisting the temptation to lie, cheat, or steal, but also by pledging to uphold the tolerance clause by not tolerating those students who commit such transgressions.

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