Honor Up Close

As a first-year student in 1978, I was one of 35 students randomly drawn by lottery to attend as “student observers” the first-ever open Honor Code trial. Mr. Josh Henson, a law student, was accused of stealing [an advance copy of a moot court problem from a national organization’s Washington, D.C., office]. The “jury” consisted of the various schools’ student presidents, as may still be the case.

Over four or five days, the jury and observers heard testimony from several witnesses, including some from the Washington firm. Witnesses were cross-examined in many cases.

On several occasions, the jury and observers were reminded that the verdict would turn on the word “reprehensible”; was the act so egregious that a guilty verdict must be rendered and the single sanction thus applied?

After the trial, the Cavalier Daily polled the observers. To the best of my recollection, a significant majority of observers reported that they did not find Mr. Henson’s behavior reprehensible. On the other hand, the jury voted unanimously to convict.

What I took away from this experience was that people in office with significant power over others are sorely tempted to use that power rather than leave it on the shelf.

C.L. Pettit (Col ’81)
Washington, D.C.

 

I almost wish I had not read “Honor Up Close.” Single sanction aside, it is disheartening to see many of the comments reported. Many students do not seem to appreciate how valuable and freeing the sense of honor and the absence of exam proctors and other controls are. Also, direct referral by faculty seems to be a problem, allowing student abrogation of responsibility. As I recall, the system originated as entirely student run, even requiring faculty to find one or more students to make any Honor Committee referral based on the professor’s findings. I also recall seeing an outside study showing that a signed, written affirmation is one of the strongest means of gaining compliance with a voluntary system, and I immediately thought of what I had to put on each exam (or paper) at the University: “On my honor as a student, I have neither given nor received aid on this examination.” I agree with Mr. Ryan that the system is not dead, but this affirmation, consistent with Mr. Ryan’s point, helps one directly internalize the Honor Code.

David D. Green (Col ’70, Law ’73)
Millburn, New Jersey

 

I just finished reading your excellent article.

I am a (relatively new) practicing criminal prosecutor, but a few years ago, while in law school at UVA, I defended a student in what I think was the last full Honor trial before the pandemic set in. 

It was a nightmare of ignorance, incompetence and occasional malice. The undergraduates in charge casually disregarded guaranteed rights, modified and made up rules and procedures on the fly, and reacted to my attempts to enforce the written Honor Constitution and bylaws with deeply unprofessional personal attacks and thinly veiled threats. Although my interest in my client’s case (which ended in acquittal) was purely academic, I came away outraged by the mockery these students entrusted with the awesome power to expel their peers (but apparently primarily interested in maintaining a prestigious social club) were making of adjudicative process. 

Alec Ward (Law ’21)
Washington, D.C.

 

I wanted to reach out to express my gratitude for your story on the Honor Code. As a faculty member, I feel that the article does a wonderful job describing what Honor is, how it is positioned at UVA and some of the difficulties the system faces. I’ll certainly share this article with colleagues. Thank you for this candid and meaningful piece!

Rich Ross, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, General Faculty UVA Statistics Department

 

Absent from the conversation about the single sanction is any acknowledgment of why it was there in the first place. UVA’s community of honor is voluntary. If a person is not comfortable with our standards of honor, then that person should find a different community. As explained to me at first-year orientation, violating the Honor Code is a decision on the part of the student not to be part of the community.

My reading of President Ryan’s letter about the Honor System is that he does not feel that it is his place to comment on the course of the student-run system. If so, I respectfully disagree. The Honor System has always required institutional support and leadership from the University. Student bodies are transitory. That the system is administered by students does not make it a rolling four-year phenomenon. In my view, the Honor System is a core institution of UVA. I believe that the president must be its champion rather than a passive observer of its dilution.

Eric H. Schless (Col ’76)
Chestertown, Maryland

 

Kudos on the thorough and thoughtful article regarding the Honor System. 

Something professors can do to ease the temptation of and opportunities for cheating is to do away with exams that essentially test for memory and the ability to regurgitate facts. These are attractive targets for cheating. 

One of the concepts I learned from my graduate studies at UVA was that the goals that define worthy performance, and against which worthy performance will be gauged, should be clearly and explicitly communicated. 

For any course I taught, I handed out the final exam on the first day of class. The only thing that was a “surprise” was the article or case study distributed at the time of the exam that was to be critically analyzed in order to respond to the already known and communicated questions. Students could use books and any resources they thought might be helpful to them—just as I would hope that in their professional career they would critically access and leverage knowledge resources as they made decisions and solved problems.

There is much that can be done in the design and execution of instructional interventions to reduce the attraction of and opportunities for cheating. 

Robert O. Brinkerhoff (Educ ’71, ’74)
Richland, Michigan

 

I have strong feelings about the Honor Code based on my time at UVA. I witnessed firsthand a friend who was kicked out of UVA via an Honor trial. The student, per an appeal that I wrote, was given a second trial, gained readmittance to UVA and subsequently graduated. Do I think this student cheated, based on my knowledge of their character? I don’t honestly know. Do I feel that they received a fair trial per the Honor court? No. 

In my friend’s case, it was based on the testimony of a fellow student who gave a verbal testimony outside of the trial; no cross-examination was allowed. My issue at the time centered not around guilt or innocence, which I didn’t know, but what we consider to be a court and how we define honorable judgment. This judgment was passed and my friend was expelled with evidence based on singular eyewitness testimony, and my friend had no ability to cross-examine witnesses. 

The umbrage I took with the process at the time stems from the legalese that was used—giving the adjudication of 20-year-old jurists unearned legitimacy—without the protections of the U.S. legal process. In the appeal we made the argument that if you are calling yourself a court, you should act like one and offer defendants basic constitutional rights.

Katie (Hodgson) Newman (Col ’03, Educ ’03)
Fairfax Station, Virginia

 

In the 1970s, I was an assistant professor teaching history at a Midwestern university. While grading blue books for my U.S. history survey course, I read an essay that was remarkably like one I’d read earlier in the day. When I compared the two, it was apparent that one student had copied from the other’s essay. The department chair called in each of the students, and one of them admitted that he had been the copier.

I assumed that this student, who was a running back on the football team, would never take another history course. To the contrary, he continued to take history classes and majored in history. Those of us who knew the backstory admired this display of persistence—and character. If we had an honor code, such as at UVA when I was here, he probably would have been expelled and the expulsion would have been the end of the story. 

In retrospect, I think that episode was as much a learning experience for me as it probably was for the student caught cheating. 

John S. Watterson (Col ’62)
Charlottesville

 

It felt like a stab through the heart to learn that Virginia students have eliminated permanent expulsion as a sanction for any Honor violation.

It isn’t surprising that today’s students have a relaxed view toward Honor. Honor seems neither a widespread societal virtue nor, for many, as important an aspiration as “winning.” And one can understand why students, fearing imperfectly administered justice, decline to report the roving eye in the exam room or choose to exercise the power of jury nullification. But for students who have sought and obtained admission to the once-special honor community of UVA, to eliminate any possibility of permanent expulsion for flagrant cheaters is shocking and saddening.

If the University must allow readmission to organized and defiant cheaters such as Roger Martin’s students, it is hard to imagine that the school can retain a meaningful “Honor Spirit.” President Ryan suggests that the recent student action may somehow “reinvigorate” the Honor System. I hope so, but I doubt it. Dean T. Braxton Woody, longtime apostle of the Honor System, wisely warned that “Honor is like virginity. You either have it or you don’t.” UVA long had it, but in 2022 discarded it.

Donald B. Lewis (Col ’69)
Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania

 

As a student during single-sanction Honor Code, I felt honored to be a part of the UVA higher standard. Mr. Richard Gard’s article was enlightening although I am sorry to see the societal changes all around us. Thank you for the fine reporting. 

Mary Thorkildson (Nurs ’87, ’90)
Gainesville, Florida

 

The article on Honor was hardly candid. For a decision that originated from, and was focused on, being less punitive and offering opportunities for reform, the article focused a lot on how incompletely adjusting the draconian punishment of expulsion for minor violations undermines the system. The author barely acknowledges the significance of this punishment’s existence affecting large-scale voluntary self-exclusion from the court itself. When he does, he insinuates that it is shameful to do so. Further, he fully substantiates the claims made by the professor (while presenting reasons given later by student advocates as tangential to these rather than providing their relevance in this context), while serving to undermine any perspective provided by the student advocates.

Trying to present this as candid or anything but a reactionary editorial is dishonest. 

Justin Elfman (Med ’19, ’24)
Charlottesville

 

As a first-year college student in 1977, I drank the Honor System Kool-Aid at orientation. But I soon grew skeptical of its mechanisms—both the Honor Committee and the single sanction. A turning point was the December 1978 public retrial and conviction of law student Josh Henson, who then took his case to federal court. More fundamental was my thinking: Why would a university entrust to students, operating in secret and without principles of precedent, a disciplinary process with only one punishment? It seemed an abdication of duty. (In 1983, the 4th Circuit agreed with me, though it rejected Henson’s appeal: “Individually, we might disagree with the wisdom of entrusting the Honor System’s vital controls to the hands of University students—possibly sometimes more volatile than mature...”)

At the end of my third semester, a professor asked me to accuse a classmate of cheating on the final. (I assume she called me because I had told her I didn’t care about her grading methods.) I refused, telling her I could not enforce a system I thought fundamentally unfair. 

The ouster of the single sanction is a good step. Real reform would be to adopt the law school’s system: The faculty, with the experience of life and its inevitable successes and failures—wisdom—is the proper enforcer. 

Bennett Minton (Col ’81)
Portland, Oregon

 

The issue with the Honor Code is neither student apathy nor the severity of the sanction. Consider the UVA Honor Code in light of President Trump’s first impeachment. If one believes the evidence, President Trump did not abide by the honor code yet suffered no consequences. Whether one believes the evidence or not, Alexander Vindman and Gordon Sondland, who did what would have been required of students under the Honor Code, were publicly humiliated and lost their jobs. Had they remained silent, the result would have been the same for President Trump, and they (and their families) would not have suffered any consequences.

Perhaps it is time to shift disciplinary matters associated with plagiarism and cheating away from the students and to the University. Is it any wonder that the students are reluctant to step forward? They are UVA students; they aren’t stupid.

Richard S. Bullitt (Engr ’80) 
New York, New York

 

I am grateful that you raise the importance of the Honor System in “Honor Up Close.” In that spirit, you missed the mark of how important a clear connection between cheating and expulsion is to upholding any honor system worthy of praise or distinction. The article’s focus on a professor skilled enough and laudably willing to put in the (seemingly procedurally excessive?) time to participate in the system has me wondering if there have been recent students who have likewise advanced Honor at UVA through outsized levels of grit and effort. If society underemphasizes civics for targeted outcomes, I hope that UVA will rally against such degradation to bolster and streamline a system that once did—and in future still could—distinguish it as a place that values trust and favors logic.

Adam Safir (Col ’94, Law ’97)
Ridgefield, Connecticut

 

I read the terrific piece on the Honor System and came away uneasy. It spoke directly to my undergraduate self, who followed the system scrupulously but considered reporting a fellow student unthinkable. As a practicing Virginia lawyer with a parallel obligation to report professional conduct violations by my colleagues and friends, the article startled me. I’m not sure that I have behaved much better than my 20-year-old self, even though self-regulation demands it.

Daniel Lee Gray (Col ’93)
Annandale, Virginia

 

Your article on the Honor System was fascinating in its revelation of how high the percentage is of nonwhites who are tried compared to the proportion of such nonwhites in the student body.

This is, I think, a reflection of racism in our nation and the world as a whole, but it still must be addressed, of course.

I remember my time at the University, first at Mary Washington and then as one of the first women admitted as a transfer to the Charlottesville campus, with great affection for the simple fact of the Honor Code. To be able to leave one’s possessions anywhere on campus and return to find them unmoved in every instance altered the way I felt in this college community.

I agree with the president that the code must endure, with gradations dependent on whether guilt is acknowledged, behavior changed and amends made.

I took the notion of honesty very seriously when I taught college English classes in Northern Virginia and Tacoma, Washington. Plagiarism was a serious offense and resulted in failure of the course. What was unfortunate was that most of those who passed off others’ language and notions as their own were most often students for whom English is a second language. Many such students have a different notion of experts that they read; it has a host of problems. White students were much better at hiding their dishonesty. This was some years ago as I have not taught in a decade. That is something I would address differently today, taking more responsibility for teaching exactly what plagiarism is, using examples and having group work that would make my policy very clear.

I was surprised at how much your article revealed on a subject that has evolved in the four decades since I was a student there.

Lenny Granger (Col ’77)
Columbia Falls, Montana

 

Your Summer/Fall 2022 issue should have mentioned Lou Bloomfield’s 2001 Honor debacle. In an introductory physics class, he submitted 148 cases of cheating to the Honor committee. This is the highest number of cases in any year.

It’s no surprise, however, you neglected Bloomfield. Despite his 37 years of teaching at the University, the opinions Professor Bloomfield expressed about the Honor System have earned him discontent. And he received “no recognition” for the cases that “took too much of my life … my research, my writing, my family.” He retires this fall.

Your article also neglects to mention Honor’s primary function: Saving face. The biggest changes to Honor have come only when its shortcomings are published in the Cavalier Daily or The Washington Post. Administrators have always been able to point to the Honor System as evidence cheating is being addressed.

Perhaps that is why President Ryan says he would vote against reducing the sentence for a conviction, and why most students disagree.

I am a recent alumnus who voted in the referendum. I was more concerned with reducing cheating overall than coming down hard on those who make a mistake and cheat. What Professor Martin is teaching in his commerce class is exemplary. Addressing the causes of dishonesty seems a better way to reduce cheating than increasing the punishments for transgressing.

But has the administration considered funding more academic clubs? Sponsoring extra TA office hours? Hiring much-needed CAPS therapists? Instead of putting Honor’s significant endowment toward convoluted pseudo-judicial systems that Bloomfield describes as a “time-sink,” we should be alleviating the pressure on students. Maybe then no one will cheat in the first place.

Quinn Ciccoretti (Col ’22)
Arlington, Virginia

 

I was an Honor juror, and it was the second-toughest day of my life with 9/11 being the worst. The student was found not guilty; his parents wept. I left the Honor court in tears and went to the Corner and ate a whole pint of ice cream.

My biggest concern with the Honor Code at the time was how faculty were involved with the process. The accusing professor was not present, and we interviewed him via speakerphone. All the jurors determined it was not an Honor violation. At the time it appeared faculty could get an intern or TA to file an accusation. 

I do want to say the prosecution and defense teams—both from the UVA Law School—were very good.

Excellent article, by the way.

MJ Young (Com ’93)
Stamford, Connecticut

 

I read with interest “Honor Up Close” in the latest edition—a great issue, by the way. I graduated from UVA at a time when there were a few minorities, even fewer women, and a double standard when it came to the revered Honor System. In those days, non-toleration was a part of the Honor pledge, and I remember students in my classes looking around at each other to check for cheaters. I also remember writing a letter to the Cavalier Daily pointing out that a “social lie” to a woman from “down the road” about booze or sex was perfectly acceptable, but to cheat on a test or to lie to a professor would result in expulsion. UVA was but a product of its geography and the times: racist, sexist, elitist, Confederate-leaning, and frankly, full of crap with the drinking and the prevalence of hypocritical Southern aristocracy. Even though I’m a modest, longtime donor to the Virginia Athletics Foundation, I often wonder why I chose The University, as it was called in my hometown of Gloucester, Virginia. I trust that it has changed, since then, as much as has the surrounding world.

I understand that the Honor System has also changed considerably since 1970, but it still clearly belies real life. Even after the Stanford Study, with its discovery of blatant racism, and the inclusion of Informed Retraction, the Honor System at Virginia yet has no raison d’etre. I’m not saying the University should condone cheating or other dishonest acts. I went through 12 years of public school, four years of college, four years of medical school, and five years of residency, and not once did I cheat. Believe me, I’m no paragon of morality, but my values and ethics are mine and solely mine; I don’t need or want an institution telling me what they should be. The faculty, the student body, the institution, and the reputation of the founder should be enough to remind students that they should act honorably. Other than requiring that students obey the law and treat each other and what’s around them with respect, an honor system is unnecessary and even destructive. In real life, there is no honor system as is patently obvious in everyday dealings with business and regular humans. How many of those scammers who tell me my Amazon account has been hacked or that I must immediately remit $10,000 bond because the FBI is “on the way” have subscribed to an honor system? We all are required to endeavor to find the good people and avoid the bad ones. I’ve resigned myself to truly trust only my orange tabby, Simba. Get rid of the “Honor System” and all its pageantry with trials, and acquittals, and kangaroo courts! It’s Mickey Mouse, archaic, and anachronistic. Replace it with a simple pledge: “I, as a University of Virginia student/faculty member, pledge to obey prevailing laws, preserve and protect the environment, and to treat others with respect and dignity.” Just like real life.

James Pointer (Col ’70)
Petaluma, California


Bobby Green, Devoted to the University [In Memoriam]

Bobby Green

Anyone who met Bobby Green was fortunate. You had a lifelong friend. I was one such person, beginning when we met as first-years in the fall of 1965, pledging DKE, becoming roommates, and staying closely in touch until his death in May. The University is fortunate as well. Bobby was the embodiment of participation and leadership. His life at the University, both as a student and as an alumnus, hopefully, has and will continue to inspire students to involve themselves in the daily life of the University—and alumni to stay involved. His work for the University is too long to list here but can be found in his obituaries and elsewhere. Many acknowledged Bobby and his efforts. The Society of the Purple Shadows succinctly noted: “mr. green’s endeavors over the years are large. mr. green has made the University … a better place for his presence.” In a letter to Bobby and wife Em’s children, recognizing the perpetual need for student financial aid, the Seven Society noted Bobby’s “interest in student aid is typical of [his] involvement in so many aspects of student life at the University.” Bobby’s work for the University continues. Two funds have been established and are still accepting donations: Bob Green Fund for Prostate Cancer Research and Bob and Em Green Scholarship. Rest in peace, Bobby, and thank you.

Barry Graham (Engr ’70)
Washington, D.C.


Embracing Many Roles, Dr. Jim Bakhtiar Led with Grace and Skill [In Memoriam]

Thank you for publishing Jim Bakhtiar’s obit. I remember Jim with fondness. He was the epitome of politeness, thoughtfulness, eagerness and all-around uprightness. A real gentleman, a prince of a person indeed. It was an honor, and a blessing, to know him. 

Dick Clair (Col ’57)
Belvidere, New Jersey


After 80 Years, Maury Hall Gets a New Name [UDigest]

Reading Ed Miller’s article on renaming Maury Hall, Ruffner Hall, Jordan Hall and others has me shaking my head. Who has that much free time to spend on these meaningless gestures? I’m sure the new names represent distinguished and well-deserving people, but a hundred years from now someone will find a misguided reason to tarnish their names as well. There is real work to do to improve UVA as an institution of higher learning, and renaming buildings is certainly not one of them.

Ed Skibinski (Engr ’79)
Cheyenne, Wyoming


Correction

The name of the Virginia town McKenney was misspelled in the Summer/Fall 2022 story “That Good Old Stuff of Wahoowa.” We regret the error.


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