The University of Virginia's single sanction Honor System keeps students from lying, cheating or stealing, but a new survey says only 40 percent of students would actually report an honor offense. The rest said they might not report an offense, or it would depend on the person involved.
"It doesn't surprise me at all that students would think twice before reporting an honor offense," said UVA professor Lou Bloomfield.
In 2001, a student approached Bloomfield about an incident of cheating in his class. Two of her friends had turned in papers that they had plagiarized from students from previous semesters. He wrote a computer program to find the recycled papers and got a surprising result.
He found 70 repeated papers over several semesters. Bloomfield went to the Honor Committee, and two years of investigations and honor trials ensued. When the dust had settled, 48 students had turned themselves in and had either left the university voluntarily, had been asked to leave, or had their degrees revoked.
Bloomfield said some of the students were career cheaters, and did not belong at the university. Others were good students who made one unfortunate decision.
"Some of these students, they made a mistake," he said, "but permanent expulsion from the university wasn't the appropriate consequence."
Students agree. The survey says the number one deterrent for reporting an offense was that it wasn't serious enough for the single sanction policy.
"I don't think many would want to be responsible for getting someone essentially kicked out of school for something that maybe was a mistake, maybe wasn't," said fourth-year student Nick Everington. "But it's too big a decision for one student to make."
Once an infraction is reported, the decision is made by a jury of UVA students.
Fourth-year student Al Koroma reported an honor offense to a professor, but stopped short of going to the Honor Committee.
"This could have been the one time where he just felt he needed extra help," said Koroma, "and you know, what if I was the reason why he lost his entire scholarship?"
Still, Koroma has faith in the community of trust. He says he sees the value in the honor system and trusts his fellow students, even if the system is not always effective. In fact, three quarters of the 1,250 students surveyed said they had positive feelings about the system.
The chair of the Honor Committee, Stephen Nash, pointed out the benefits of the system.
"I am able to leave my laptop unattended in the library, leave my door open every single day, and feel, as well as the vast majority of students, that I've received benefits and privileges due to this community of trust," said Nash. "And to me, that's the metric in how the system is working - not necessarily if every single student is reported by a professor or by a fellow student."
Nash also said the survey is an opportunity to see where the system can improve. The survey is a part of Honor System's Education and Engagement campaign. Members of the community can weigh in every Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Honor meetings on the lawn.
The Honor System is run by students, and Nash said it is theirs to change. Bloomfield said that the idea that the current system can be effective is wishful thinking.
"It's a wonderful cultural icon and it probably does help keep the honest students honest but the students who are determined to cheat for whatever reason will misbehave," he said.
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