U.Va. ponders price of maintaining honor

Alumni raising funds for ethics education

January 20, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

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."

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