Sept. 14, 2001
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Honor System's credibility may be put on trial this fall

By Dan Heuchert

What’s black and white and read all over?

Louis Bloomfield
Rebecca Arrington
Louis Bloomfield

This fall, it will be Monday editions of the Cavalier Daily. That’s because Monday issues traditionally include the “honor black box,” which discloses in simple declarative sentences the fate of those accused of committing honor offenses. With the plagiarism cases from physics professor Louis Bloomfield’s “How Things Work” course having drawn international attention since the news broke in May, members of the University community will be carefully monitoring the outcomes of what will likely be an unprecedented number of weekend honor trials this fall.

The Honor Committee hopes to clear all 130 cases arising from the popular physics course by the end of the fall semester, said Thomas Hall, the committee chair. Through Aug. 1, 36 cases had been investigated, with 25 dropped before trial, most commonly because those accused were found to be unknowing “source papers” for the accused plagiarists.

The remaining 11 cases were sent to trial. Only one has been conducted, resulting in a guilty verdict, according to statistics released by the Honor Committee.

The charges were filed late in the spring semester after Bloomfield was informed by a student of possible cheating in his popular “How Things Work” class. He created a computer program that would allow him to check thousands of term papers submitted for the course against each other for similarities, flagging papers which had identical strings of words. Charges were eventually filed against 130 current and former students.

Roughly half are authors of papers thought to have been “source” papers, Hall said. They are likely to be cleared in pre-trial investigations unless there is some reason to believe they knowingly aided the plagiarism, which is an honor offense, he said.

As of mid-August, Hall was awaiting word on how many of the accused would return to the University for the academic year. Committee members have been working all summer and are prepared to try as many as three or four cases each weekend, Hall said. Bloomfield said he will make himself available to testify in every trial.
The outcomes of the trials, as reported in the Cavalier Daily’s black boxes, could have a major effect on future faculty support for the Honor System.

In the past, some faculty members have expressed frustration with the system, citing cases in which student juries have returned “not guilty” verdicts when the professors believed the evidence against the accused was compelling. Should a large number of the “How Things Work” trials end similarly — given what has been reported in the media — “obviously, there would be a lot of concern at that point,” said biology professor Robert Grainger, chair of the Faculty Senate.

He nonetheless stressed that faculty do not want to prejudice the process. “Faculty approve of acting by procedure, because that’s what they do with their scholarship,” he said. “But if that [‘not guilty verdicts’] does happen, certainly a lot more cynics might emerge.”

Earl Dudley, a law professor who has advised the Honor Committee in the past, agreed that faculty will be watching the outcomes closely. “I think there is considerable feeling among the faculty that the Honor System is not, and is not likely to become, an adequate academic disciplinary system,” he said. “If there are a lot of ‘not guilties’ in this, it may reinforce and spread that feeling.”

Already, some effects are being seen. At a school where many professors have in the past allowed students to take exams without a proctor being present, copies of Bloomfield’s plagiarism-detection program — which he has posted on the Internet for free downloading by professors worldwide — have apparently been in great demand on Grounds this summer, Hall said.

Even one of the Honor System’s most stalwart defenders has admitted that he is troubled by the cases.

“To me, the most sobering thing is not that so many cheated,” said economics professor Kenneth W. Elzinga, “but that with that much cheating going on, nobody initiated a case” until Bloomfield ran his computer program and filed the charges himself.

Students’ reluctance to invoke the Honor System is nothing new, Dudley said. “The myth is that this really goes back to the late ’60s and early ’70s, when by kicking someone out of school you were essentially sending them to ’Nam,” he said.

“I think there is no question that a reluctance to use the system exists at every stage,” he added.

Indeed, an Honor Committee study conducted during the last academic year found that almost 51 percent of nearly 1,600 students surveyed felt very positive or somewhat positive about the system’s effectiveness, and 56 percent felt similarly about the system as a whole. Responding to a question phrased hypothetically, only 15 percent said they would not initiate an honor case if they witnessed a “clear honor violation.”

But when those who said they believed they had witnessed an actual violation were asked if they initiated an honor case, 95.4 percent said no. The top four reasons: “I did not think the offense was serious enough to warrant an initiation” (56 percent); “I did not want to be responsible for dismissing another student” (44 percent); “I didn’t want to get involved” (35 percent); and “the person involved was a friend” (27 percent).

Hall acknowledged that the “How Things Work” verdicts will be under close scrutiny, but cautioned that the process must play itself out fairly.

“I think it’s important that these verdicts be consistent with the objective facts of the cases,” Hall said. “We don’t have a stake in the outcome. We want the process to be very consistent and very fair.

“I hope we can prove that we have the capacity to handle a large number of cases in a fair and efficient way. I hope it restores some of the trust that we’ve lost with some of the faculty.”


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