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Honor code at Virginia college: a relic or a model?

February 20, 1997

STAUNTON, Va. (AP) _ Students at Mary Baldwin College won’t lie, cheat, or steal. You have their word on it, in writing.

The honors pledge they sign as freshmen may seem a relic of the past, at a time when polls have found widespread cheating among American high school and college students.

But this small school, founded in the Blue Ridge foothills in the 19th century, takes the subject very seriously, trusting its 1,200 female students to take examinations on their own time with no professors watching.

``You can leave your books lying around,″ said Lisa Crigler, 20, a junior from Staunton, standing on the hilly campus that overlooks the Shenandoah and the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, a champion of honor systems. ``You can leave anything anywhere, and nobody touches it.″

The school canceled classes Wednesday so students could spend the day taking a close and lively look at the honor system, an institution that still lives on at dozens of other campuses, including Princeton, Rice and Stanford.

Most schools with honor systems are in the Southeast, however, with at least a half-dozen within a 50-mile radius of this campus.

Cheating scandals have marred the honor system at larger campuses, such as the United States Naval Academy in 1992. Despite their pledge of truthfulness, most of the 133 who were implicated had lied repeatedly about their involvement until given the hard evidence, a Navy report said.

Codes, nonetheless, appear to reduce cheating even among students who cheated in high school, says Donald McCabe, a management professor at Rutgers University who has compared code and noncode schools.

``Students are convinced they have responsibility for success or failure of the system,″ McCabe said. ``They know that in the system they are getting lots of privileges.″

Pride in family and college helps keep students honest. So does having a small campus.

``For my father, a handshake is his word,″ said Suzannah Meyer, a 21-year-old senior from Williamsburg, Va., and chairwoman of the honor council. Her grandfather attended Annapolis. Meyer, an art major, says the honor code is in her bones.

``You see everybody else sticking by it,″ added Amy Kessinger, 20, a junior from nearby Lexington, Va. ``You feel they abide by it, so, well, I’m going to do it, too.″

All the same, students sometimes still have a hard time accepting so much power in the hands of their peers on student-run honor councils. There’s also a judicial council, run much the same way, that handles rules on such things as underage drinking.

The secret proceedings create some mistrust. ``The question is, is it so confidential that students don’t see the system at work, so they don’t believe it works?″ asked Robin Mathena, 21, a senior from Marion, Va., chairwoman of the judicial board.

What students here hate the most, many say, is the obligation to report other students, a requirement of most honor pledges.

``I don’t feel like it’s anyone’s business to turn anyone at all,″ said Holland Roberts, 21, a junior from Charlottesville, Va. ``If they end up suffering the consequences later in life, that’s their problem.″

Some institutions have replaced that requirement with one that the student simply confront the violator.

At Mary Baldwin, students face strictness and mercy. The code applies to all dealings, so a student who fakes an ID to drink or buy liquor has broken rules against lying. But a range of punishments is possible, including community service.

The opposite holds true at the nearby University of Virginia, which adopted its honor code in 1842. All offenders face expulsion. As a result, many professors flunk cheaters rather than report them.

Many Mary Baldwin students dislike that. Yet they worry that perhaps too many of their fellow students get off scot-free. ``I turned in someone who cheated on a final exam,″ said Suzanna Hicks, 22, a senior from Indianapolis. ``That person was back the next year. It doesn’t seem like the system was working.″

And at schools across the country, a few enforcers have had their wings clipped in a way that makes them question honor among adults.

In 1994, University of Virginia officials took a rare step and forced a new honor trial for a student expelled earlier for alleged cheating. The second peer panel cleared the student. The university paid $40,000 to a Washington lawyer the youth’s parents had hired to sue the school.

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