U.Va. ponders price of maintaining honor


CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - There was a time, say University of Virginia alumni, when the school's renowned honor system was a tradition that they carried in their hearts.

But today, those same old-timers say, the system needs a jump-start from their wallets.

In an unprecedented effort, the University of Virginia Alumni Association is soliciting donations for a $2 million "Honor Endowment" that will likely pay for ethics seminars and promotional videos, among other things, to bolster an honor system that has shown signs of weakening.

The fund-raising campaign takes place less than a year after revelations that more than 100 university students might have plagiarized an essay in a physics class - a scandal that brought the university unwanted worldwide attention.

Administrators and student leaders welcome the alumni effort, saying it will buttress a 160-year-old honor system that trusts students not to "lie, cheat or steal" - at risk of expulsion - in return for freedoms such as unproctored exams.

At the same time, the campaign has raised a question facing campuses around the country: Is it worth retaining collegiate honor codes that can survive only with financial backing or large support structures?

"There have been reactions by other alumni of my age who say, 'Can honor be bought?'" said Leigh B. Middleditch Jr., a 1951 Virginia graduate and a former president of the alumni association's board of managers. "My response is, 'I don't know if [the system] can be preserved, but it was an essential element of my education, ... and I would be remiss as someone who believes in the system not to try to preserve it.'"

Students interviewed last week on the stately Charlottesville campus said they respected the alumni's wish to strengthen the honor system but were skeptical that spending more money would accomplish it.

"It won't have very much influence. The precepts of the honor system are already pretty well known around campus," said Abe Barth, 19, a philosophy and computer science major from Wilmington, Del., as he passed the school's famous Rotunda. "If you're going to break the code, I don't think you'll be deterred by its being publicized. The money could be better spent elsewhere."

Plans at other schools

Other colleges - including some in Maryland - are also trying to shore up honor systems at a time when many students come from high schools where they say cheating is the norm, and when the Internet has made it easier to cut ethical corners.

Starting Jan. 28, the first day of the spring semester, students at the University of Maryland, College Park will be required to sign a pledge on every exam or major assignment stating that they have "not given or received any unauthorized assistance."

The pledge was proposed by student leaders as a way to ingrain Maryland's 12-year-old honor code in students, said Gary Pavela, the university's director of academic integrity.

"It's very thought-provoking. Some people worried it would just be a hassle, that no one would really think about it, but it's a pretty serious moment, at the end of an exam, when you're really focused and you're signing that pledge," he said. "You're not often forced to make a public affirmation like that in American life."

Pavela added that Maryland is contemplating fund raising similar to the Virginia alumni association's to support additional programs promoting the school honor code. "We hope we do it earlier than the 100 years it took U.Va.," he said.

Loyola College has started distributing bookmarks that bear the school honor code and posting the code in classrooms during exams, said Rick Satterlee, an administrator at the college in North Baltimore. Two years ago, it started requiring students to recite the honor pledge at convocation.

At Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., the Class of 1960 has raised about $750,000 to create an honor institute opening this weekend. The institute will promote ethical behavior in high schools and the workplace, and indirectly help sustain the school's 137-year-old honor system.

While an "honor endowment" might seem at odds with the idea of honor systems as natural outgrowths of good character, such efforts don't necessarily mean that honor codes have outlived their usefulness, said Donald McCabe, a Rutgers University business professor and founder of the Center of Academic Integrity. His surveys have found that 23 percent of students at colleges with student-run honor systems admit to serious cheating, vs. 46 percent of students at colleges without them. "As the world around honor systems has changed dramatically, [Virginia] is using its resources to stay on top of it," said McCabe. "You can't buy honor, but you can create a culture that encourages it."

Plagiarism scandal

Virginia alumni leaders say they had been planning the honor endowment more than a year before physics professor Louis Bloomfield, with the help of a computer program, discovered disturbing similarities last spring in essays involving 156 students in his course. Twenty-three of the students have left the university; 66 cases have been dropped, 22 are awaiting trial and 40 are under investigation.

Still, alumni officials said, the plagiarism scandal has likely fueled a fund-raising campaign that has reached $1.4 million in gifts and pledges from about 1,000 donors just four months after solicitations went out to alumni.

"When these kinds of things receive national publicity, you clearly get heightened interest from the [alumni] population about where things stand and what is being done," said alumni association director John B. Syer, a 1961 graduate. "It's a natural entree to ask alumni to support this."

As the story goes, the Virginia honor code got its impetus in 1840, when a student on horseback shot a professor on campus. As the professor lay dying, he declined to identify his killer, saying he would confess if he was an honorable man; the killer never did.

The system formally began in 1842, when a professor instructed students to sign a note to each exam saying they received no help on it. It is now overseen by a 23-person student committee and nearly 200 student support officers who advise those accused of honor offenses and educate students about the code.

It remains a "single sanction" system, in which a single violation will result in expulsion. (Other systems, like Maryland's, flunk students in classes where they are caught cheating but don't necessarily expel them.) The honor committee is considering adopting a more flexible system on the theory that faculty and students would be more willing to report violations.

"They need to have different options for people, like probation, rather than just, 'You're out of here,'" said Leyla Pajouhandeh, an engineering student from Vienna, Va.

Many alumni aren't necessarily opposed to revising the single sanction, say alumni leaders. What has frustrated them is to watch the system - for many, the most cherished part of their college experience - become cluttered with legalisms and come under court challenges from high-priced lawyers hired by accused students.

A less insular culture

Still, alumni officials say, many former students are willing to financially support the system because they recognize that times have changed: Their alma mater is no longer a bastion of Virginia gentry bred on personal honor codes, but a sprawling university with 18,000 students of all backgrounds.

"It used to be a much more insular culture, with much more evident standards among [students] of what the line was that was not to be crossed," said Glynn D. Key, a Washington lawyer who headed the student honor committee in 1986 and is now president of the alumni board of managers.

Thomas Hall, the chairman of the student honor committee, said he is "thrilled" that alumni appreciate the difference between today's campus and the one they knew, and are willing to lend a hand.

"This simply isn't the same school it was, say, in the 1960s, when it was all white males, mostly from the South," said Hall, a senior from Kansas whose room looks out on the lawn where the professor was shot in 1840. "There are a lot of constituencies to reach out to, the sheer size is just enormous, and a lot of students didn't have the experience of an honor system in their high schools."

Alumni association leaders say they are unsure how they will use the $100,000 in annual income expected to be generated by the $2 million endowment.

Hall, whose committee has an annual budget of about $90,000, said he hoped to use some of the alumni money for a new video and CD-ROM promoting the honor system. The money could also go toward professional diversity training for support officers, as a way to quell criticism that the honor system is disproportionately enforced against minorities. "As silly as a video and CD-ROM may seem, that's how you reach students today," he said.

Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato said it will also be important to use the fund to counsel faculty, some of whom don't enforce the code because they don't want to cause students to be expelled for lesser violations.

At Rutgers, McCabe recommended spending some of the money on intensive sessions for incoming freshmen, "to convince them that this is a community where people trust each other and the vast majority of people are going to abide by the code."

Good luck, said Barth, from Delaware. While he's in favor of keeping the honor system, he doubts that extra promotion will save it.

"It comes down to your personal feelings of honor, to someone's own morality and whether they think honor is important," he said. "For most people, it's innate."

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