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State colleges scrutinize honor codes in wake of Navy cheating scandals

THE BALTIMORE SUN

About midmorning tomorrow, Carrie Wann will stand with 200 other freshmen at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland and repeat the school's honor pledge: "I shall try to follow all truth, I shall try to see all beauty, I shall try to be all goodness. . . ."

With that, Miss Wann will be initiated into the Notre Dame academic community. In return for her vow, Notre Dame will welcome her to the fold, dress her in an academic gown for the first time and promise not to "proctor" her examinations.

Notre Dame's honor system has undergone few changes since it was begun in 1936. By all accounts on campus, it has worked well at the small Catholic women's college. But in the wake of surveys showing that two-thirds of college students have cheated, and of scandals and honor-code controversies at the U.S. Naval Academy and elsewhere, colleges and universities throughout the region are grappling with questions as old as the Greek philosophers:

In an era in which the margins of right and wrong seem smudged, can academic integrity be enforced? Can students be taught to be honest? Will they turn each other in?

In Annapolis, where the theft of an electrical engineering examination two years ago led to two investigations, 24 expulsions and 88 lesser penalties, the Naval Academy has engaged a Marine colonel, Michael Hagee, to oversee a "character development plan."

Heavy doses of ethics will be injected into almost every academy activity.

Starting next month, said Colonel Hagee, the entire brigade will attend monthly seminars on ethics. Among other topics for discussion: the academy's own scandal, how it happened and what lessons can be learned from it.

"It boils down to respect for the truth, for each other and for the property of each other," said Colonel Hagee. "If you and I don't tell each other the truth, we can't communicate."

Disgraced savings and loan figure Jeffrey A. Levitt is one of those discussed in a six-week seminar on academic integrity at the University of Maryland College Park. The seminar is open to those already convicted of cheating and given a grade of "XF" -- XTC the "X" for dishonesty -- by the student-run honors council. The "X" can be removed after a year by successful completion of the seminar, said Gary Pavela, director of judicial programs, although the "F" remains as a part of the record.

Last year, 38 students got the "XF" grade, but Mr. Pavela said that only about half of the students who get the "XF" grade are opting for the seminar.

This means that the cheating grade will follow them for life.

Students at the University of Baltimore, which houses the Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics, are required to take a course in ethical issues in business and society. And St. Mary's College of Maryland will devote an entire day next month to discussions of what it means to be an "honors college" -- the school's designation by the Maryland General Assembly. One result could be St. Mary's first honor code.

Students and professors agree that the level of campus honesty is at least partly a function of size. Miss Wann, who graduated from Overlea High School last spring, said Notre Dame's "sense of community makes it real hard to think about cheating because you'd almost feel you'd betrayed someone. I came from a public high school, and the cheating was there. I mean, I cheated. I copied homework and stuff, but here I know better because they really care about you and they value you."

Stephen Vicchio, a Notre Dame philosophy professor, agreed: "Don't forget that this place was built on the backs of nuns whose compasses point due north all the time. These women aren't good because they were just plopped down here on Charles Street; they're good because they work hard at being good."

Nor are the sanctions imposed by schools such as Notre Dame as drastic as those meted out at the University of Virginia, where a controversial 152-year-old student-run honor code calls for automatic dismissal on first offense. The code has been challenged several times, but students prefer it. They voted overwhelmingly last March to keep the code.

One of the problems of honor codes is that typically they do not allow students who are charged to be represented by lawyers. Matthew A. Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, said that Hopkins students can be represented by fellow students before honors hearing panels, "and over the years I've seen some real Clarence Darrows."

Nothing prevents an expelled student from turning to the courts, however. A 21-year-old University of Virginia student won reinstatement this summer after he threatened to file a $750,000 lawsuit. The university also agreed to pay his $40,000 in legal fees.

The trend of the 1990s seems to be away from strict "single-sanction" honor codes like those at Virginia. Said Dennis M. Pelletier, vice president for student and academic services at the University of Baltimore, "The certainty of punishment is much more important than the severity."

On one point almost everyone agrees: Honor codes that require students to turn in their fellows -- and that make it a violation not to report -- are doomed.

At the heart of the Naval Academy scandal was the reluctance of midshipmen who were witnesses to the cheating to betray their peers in the name of an abstract called honor.

Edmund Lee said he didn't inform his math professor at College Park when he saw two students switch examinations.

Said the senior chemical engineering major from Gaithersburg: "I was mad because I could have lost my 'A.' They could have wrecked the curve."

But as for remaining silent about the incident, Mr. Lee said, "There's an unsaid code that you don't rat on anyone."

And the more severe the punishment, the less likely the tattling.

Still, research conducted four years ago at Rutgers University showed that there was considerably less cheating at schools with honor codes than at those without them. It also found more cheating at the top and bottom of the grade-point scale than in the middle. No one knows why. The principal researcher, Donald L. McCabe, speculated that students at the top of the scale are competing for spots in graduate schools and will cheat to get them. Those at the bottom are simply desperate.

Jocelyn Jurkovich, a freshman at Goucher College from Sacramento, Calif., already has carried the crucible in a cheating scandal. At her public high school last year, three of the top students in an advanced English class obtained a copy of a test and exchanged notes. They all got top grades on the test. Miss Jurkovich and others "thought long and hard," she said, and then turned them in.

"We got dirty looks, and the school was pretty divided," she said.

"Some thought we'd broken the silent honor code among students. On the whole, though, I felt good about what we'd done, though it might be as hard, or even harder, to turn someone in than to cheat.

"To keep my own sanity, I have to believe people are still good and still have morals. I have a strong sense of myself, who I am and who I want to be, and that helps."

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