Warning to hard-core UVA traditionalists: What follows may upset you. Simply put, the University is changing—and has been for decades. So, too, is the Honor System. While polls find that students endorse an honor system in concept, they appear less willing to hold each other accountable, preferring to leave the heavy lifting to an increasingly skeptical faculty. Meanwhile, fueled in part by a high-profile public trial last fall, critics charge that students’ unwillingness to impose the single sanction—permanent expulsion—allows some guilty students to go unpunished. Clearly, UVA’s Honor System is in danger of suffering irreparable damage.
If it is to remain viable, a hard-headed, clear-eyed, realistic discussion of honor’s future is essential. To many alumni, the Honor System is the most unassailable of the University’s core values, a dearly treasured element of the best years of their lives. It created the revered “community of trust,” safeguarded by the sanction for those who dared violate it. Of course, community was easier when students were relatively fewer in number, and living within fairly well-defined borders.
Today’s University is a different place. Some figures: In 1958, overall enrollment declined by 44 students, to 4,620. That wouldn’t happen again for 33 years, until the student population plateaued in the low 18,000s for about a decade. Enrollment growth has since resumed, topping 20,000 for the first time in 2004. With the population boom, the University has also increased its geographical footprint, blurring the lines between town and gown. Charlottesville is no longer a sleepy Southern town, and the Grounds no longer an insular enclave.
Beyond population, societal attitudes have shifted. Today’s UVA students appear increasingly unwilling to police their peers. In a 2001 survey, only 15 percent claimed that they would not report witnessing a hypothetical “clear honor violation.” But of those who said they were aware of an actual violation, 95.4 percent admitted they did not initiate an honor investigation.
Meghan Sullivan (Col ’05), who chaired the Honor Committee in 2004-2005, told Inside UVA, the faculty and staff newsletter: “Students are very service-minded. They want to do well. But they don’t want to grapple with ethically messy issues. … When it comes down to making hard decisions, students back away.”
That reluctance came to the fore last fall, when two students accused of collaborating on a homework assignment opted for a rare public honor trial. Jurors found them guilty of intentionally cheating, but in a separate vote found their actions did not merit expulsion—thus acquitting them. “I think a lot of people are unwilling to hold someone accountable for an honor offense unless it’s a serious one,” one juror told the Cavalier Daily. “It was just a homework assignment. While they did it, to me, it’s not enough to expel them from the University.” Added another, “I really think they deserve some sort of minor punishment. So in that sense, I really think the Honor System doesn’t work. … But I am happy they weren’t expelled because I don’t think their actions deserve expulsion.”
Additional sanction options have long been discussed, occasionally proposed and consistently voted down. However, in a spring 2004 referendum, 59 percent of students asked the Honor Committee to investigate a multiple-sanction system, and in the wake of the open honor trial, the Cavalier Daily endorsed the idea in an editorial. “The only conclusion to draw is that in some cases the single sanction actually acts as a shield that makes it easier to lie, cheat or steal,” it said. “It is on the back of this fact, not philosophical arguments, that it becomes clear that a multiple sanction system is absolutely necessary.”
Current Honor Committee chairman David Hobbs says a multiple-sanction proposal will appear on a ballot either this spring or fall, but added that the committee also is mulling less-dramatic procedural reforms.
Students’ reluctance to police themselves has left much of the enforcement burden to faculty. A 2004 report by the Honor Committee’s faculty advisory panel found that as many as 86 percent of honor cases in a given year are initiated by faculty or graduate-student instructors. (Hobbs says a more typical number is around 70 percent to 80 percent.)
Alarmed faculty members have questioned the Honor System’s vitality. Last spring, the Faculty Senate voted unanimously to recommend reinstatement of the “non-toleration clause” that requires students to report honor violations that they become aware of, or be liable for an honor violation themselves. The senators, too, called for further discussion of multiple sanctions.
The most scathing faculty attack came from the professor who has likely initiated more honor cases than any other person in University history: physics professor Louis Bloomfield, whose plagiarism-detection computer program led to accusations in April 2001 that 158 students in his introductory “How Things Work” class had cheated. In remarks to the Faculty Senate two years later, he declared that students have abdicated their responsibility for self-governance in matters of honor, and said that faculty members “should never have accepted” either the responsibility of initiating honor cases (once reserved for students only) or the repeal of the non-toleration clause. If he found similar cheating again, Bloomfield said he would not pursue charges through the Honor System, calling honor cases “time sinks” leading to “careericide.”
While the outlook for the Honor System—at least as it stands now—appears bleak, all is not lost.
Student and faculty polls—and the University’s Board of Visitors—consistently show solid support for the continued existence of a student-run honor system. Likewise, the same Faculty Senate report that advocated restoration of the non-toleration clause deemed the system “a fundamental cornerstone of the University of Virginia” and worthy of preservation.
Alumni agree. In 1998, the Alumni Association issued an appeal for donations to establish an endowment to support the Honor System. Thousands responded; today, the $2 million fund primarily helps educate incoming students, supporting production of the introductory On My Honor video, honor receptions at schools, the training of honor educators, graduate-student honor orientation, honor-related guest speakers and educational forums, and diversity initiatives. Funds also offset the Honor Committee’s legal expenses and fulfill other committee requests above and beyond the substantial funding the University provides. Despite surpassing the original fund-raising goal, donations continue to come in. “It was something that resonated with everybody,” says John B. “Jack” Syer, the association’s former president.
Even Bloomfield remains open to the possibility of an honor renaissance. “I would love to have an Honor System,” he said. “The students should fix it.”
With that in mind, we asked students, faculty and alumni for their ideas on restoring honor on Grounds. A half dozen responded; their essays follow.
Associate Professor of Psychology
One of the oldest principles of moral psychology is that habit builds character. If you can get people to do honorable things, they will become honorable people. Jefferson himself wrote that the moral sense “may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body.” So the community of trust that UVA students have created for themselves is a wise and wonderful thing.
But the Honor System in its present form violates two other principles of moral psychology, thereby undermining its effectiveness. The first is that the certainty of punishment is a much more powerful deterrent than is the severity of punishment. At UVA, however, we get it backward: cheating is almost always tolerated, and on rare occasions it is punished severely. The second principle is the principle of justice, which says, “Treat like cases alike and different cases differently.” But the single sanction requires us all to violate the principle of justice. The single sanction is a deliberate policy of treating all cases alike, and most cases more harshly than we think is right.
As a social psychologist, it seems clear to me that the single sanction is an obstacle to honor at UVA. It contributes to widespread toleration of dishonor, and to dishonorable behavior at trial. Yet in my talks with those who defend the single sanction, I have come also to see how much it inspires many students.
So is there a way to keep the single sanction, yet get it in harmony with basic principles of moral psychology? Yes. We can add a “forgiveness” clause to the single sanction. Any student caught cheating is expelled (we still have just one sanction), but the expulsion need not be permanent. The Honor Committee can draft procedures by which expelled students can apply (once) for forgiveness and readmission.
This change would have a ripple effect throughout the system: more students would stand up after being caught and admit that they cheated, reducing the percentage of cases that go to trial, and reducing the desperate lies told at trial. More faculty would therefore initiate cases. The whole process would feel more humane and just, which would encourage more students and faculty to initiate cases. And best of all, forgiveness is an inspiring change, one that feels like moral progress rather than like an admission of failure. In fact, forgiveness satisfies the very logic that is already built into the Honor System in the seriousness clause, which asks: If a behavior were to become widespread, would it undermine the community of trust? If so, then it is serious. Well, what about forgiveness? If forgiveness were to become widespread at UVA, would it undermine our community of trust? No. It would strengthen it. It would be exactly the sort of moral “exercise” that Jefferson wanted us to have.
(Adapted with permission from a commentary first published Nov. 30, 2004, in the Cavalier Daily.)
Thomas B.W. Hall
Col ’02, Law ’06; Honor Committee Chairman, 2000-2002
The problems faced by the Honor System defy simple solutions. It is tempting for would-be reformers to propose the elimination of the single sanction as the cure for the system’s problems. However, many of the system’s ailments will not necessarily be remedied by such a change; students will still be reluctant to initiate cases against their peers (as demonstrated by our experience with the University Judiciary Committee) and faculty will still be frustrated with inconsistent verdicts and lengthy procedures.
What should be done? First, we should amend the Honor Committee constitution to eliminate the possibility of “non-serious” academic cheating. The University is an academic institution, and we should not tolerate any behavior that subverts that mission. This change would eliminate one of the principal faculty complaints about the system.
Second, the Board of Visitors and administration should take more seriously their stated commitment to the Honor System. The board’s manual ranks maintenance of the Honor System as one of its highest priorities, but that priority has not trickled down to the faculty. Students clearly must do more to maintain the system by reporting dishonorable acts, but the reality of the modern University is that faculty and teaching assistants are best positioned to detect academic dishonesty. The University needs to enforce those portions of faculty contracts that require support of the Honor System and end the continual circumvention of the formal process of the system.
Students and faculty must work together to strengthen our Honor System, but we cannot forget that our system is a student one. Students make the rules and should play a significant role in enforcing them, but we cannot do it without the help of our faculty. That means reporting cases to the Honor Committee, working to improve the processes by which those cases are adjudicated, and not opting out of the system.
Leigh B. Middleditch Jr.
Col ’51, Law ’57
For alumni of my generation, the Honor System was one of the essential components of our education. Before the courts and law students became involved, procedures were simple and quick in operation. One of the abiding principles was that it was an honor offense not to turn a student in who was an alleged violator. Also, the giving of one’s word was sacrosanct.
Since graduating, I have personally observed that vestiges of the Honor System have continued; in particular, the word of one alumnus to another remains important to many alumni relationships.
Unless there are changes to the current system, or drastic societal changes involving morality, it is unlikely that honor will continue to be viable as an integral part of undergraduate education at the University. In my opinion, survival is dependent on intense leadership by the Board of Visitors, the president, deans and faculty to cause “integrity” (the current honor colloquialism) to be taught, on a mandatory basis, throughout the undergraduate years.
The various defenses available to an accused student which permit avoidance of the single sanction (e.g., the seriousness clause) merely provide an opportunity for jury nullification of offenses which otherwise would result in a guilty verdict. If the single sanction continues to deter students from turning in alleged violators, there has to be an adjustment. I have unsuccessfully suggested to the Honor Committee to cause a referendum on the deletion of “permanently” expelled from the Honor Constitution. While this may not alone increase the student body’s responsibility in turning their fellows in, at least it would provide an Honor Committee the opportunity to consider applications for readmission.
Col ’06; Lawn resident
We should be careful not to conflate resistance to the single sanction with a deterioration of honor at the University. Avoiding the handicap of blind commitment to tradition, we recognize that the Honor System is simply changing, much in the way it has several times in the past. Students are acknowledging that the honor code’s aim is not to purge the student body of those who lie, cheat, or steal; rather, to engender in students a value for honorable conduct. The integrity of the system exists not so much in the actual process as in the interest of the student body to hold their peers accountable for their actions.
Student self-governance should take the fore. Students must take full charge of holding each other answerable for their misconduct. Taking our cue from decreased student participation, we cannot ignore that the system needs restructuring and that such a restructuring must be initiated and carried out by us, not administrators or alumni.
As the $30,000-plus price tag leaves students more conscious of the challenges to obtaining a college education, the manner by which they wish to promote honor among their peers (putting another student’s degree in question) is shifting as well. Students should focus on finding new ways in which we might hold our peers accountable for the same infractions, not how we can forcibly maintain the tired status quo, single sanction and all.
Grad ’02; Ph.D. candidate in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese
As a graduate student who has independently taught more than 600 students at UVA, I have had my share of run-ins with the honor code. Whenever I have been confronted with a violation, I ask myself, “Who am I to meddle with anybody else’s destiny?” As an individual, I do not feel I have that right. Yet, as a UVA student I have that obligation; thus my discontent, because the code asks me to do something with which I morally disagree.
As a Raven, Range resident, in-residence director of the Casa Bolivar, Faculty-Senate Dissertation Fellowship recipient, Fulbright Fellow—amongst other achievements and contributions to my school and department—I am most proud of UVA’s tradition of student self-governance. The goal of this activism is, in essence, to do away with bad traditions and create new and more honorable ones.
Recent statistics inform us that the majority of UVA students elude the code. I am certain that many of these students are honorable individuals. My suggestion for restoring honor is to first decide what honor really means, and then to determine whether the code really helps us achieve that goal. Then, if there is to be a major change, the dissenting majority must consolidate and demonstrate its discontent in true Cavalier fashion.
Patricia H. Werhane
Ruffin Professor of Business Ethics, Darden Graduate School of Business Administration
The focus of the Honor System is on students and student behavior, and the admonition not to lie, steal or cheat is obviously critical to create a community of trust that continues long after one graduates. But if this is critical to the University and the moral future of this country, should we not extend and enlarge this community of trust?
Recently, commissioned by President John T. Casteen III, a group of senior faculty, administrators, staff and students gathered to think broadly about honor and integrity. [Editor’s note: Ms. Werhane chaired the panel.] They developed the notion of “envisioning integrity throughout the University.” The aim was not to replace or displace the student-run Honor System, but rather to develop the theme of integrity as part of the mission of the University: its faculty, staff and administrators; undergraduate, graduate and professional students; parents and alumni.
The mission of this endeavor was to create a University community of trust and honor that would extend far beyond the bounds of the student-run Honor System. The philosophy was—and is—that integrity and honor are part of all that we do, thus integrity should embed all our relationships: our personal, social, religious, academic and professional activities. The University could be a model for creating a community of integrity and trust “all the way through” all that we do and strive to be.
Through the University-wide Institute for Practical Ethics, courses and programs would be developed with the themes of ethics and integrity. Training would be conducted for faculty, graduate assistants, researchers and, yes, staff and administration, on the importance of the complete academic life of integrity. Parents and alumni would be brought into the project as mentors and thought leaders.
The Envision Integrity Project is still in an embryonic stage. Yet its idea—that integrity, trust, honor and ethics are part of all aspects of our lives, not just as students, and not just in the classroom—is an idea that is worth considering in the forefront of our thinking as students contemplate, again, the viability and structure of the University of Virginia’s Honor System.