May 17-23, 2002
Back Issues
Speaking on the Lawn
Reserve a 2002 graduation video
Finding cultural identity in deafness and teaching
Six students get grad school boost

Collins takes on international human rights

Student first at U.Va. to win Scottish fellowship
Sullivan Award winners honored
Healing, unity student’s passions
Award also goes to faculty member
Graduates have been pillars of U.Va. student self-governance
College is time of spiritual, intellectual growth
Adult degree program graduates first students
Graduation: Did you know?
Nursing student answers
9-11 call
Students will have their day in the sun
Graduate rallies volunteers to bring arts to schools
Fifteen dozen cookies and a law degree
Wise student aspires to career helping students in higher ed
The beauty of Antarctica beckons, but graduate’s passion is teaching
Photo by Jenny Gerow
have been pillars of U.Va.
student self-governance
Photo by Sarah Cramer/Cavalier Daily

Scandal met its foil in Hall/
Fifer shines in dark times

Thomas Hall By Dan Heuchert

Thomas Hall can tell you exactly where he was when he first learned of the “How Things Work” honor cases.

He was sitting at his desk in the Honor Committee’s offices, just 11 days into his second term as the student-run organization’s chair. “It was April 12 [2001],” Hall recalled. “I think it was a Thursday.”

An honor adviser came in with a huge stack of papers and announced, “Thomas, you’re not going to believe this.”

The stack came from physics professor Louis Bloomfield, who had devised a computer program to identify and collate term papers that contained long strings of identical words. The papers the adviser plopped on the table were both original and allegedly copied submissions from more than 100 students in his introductory “How Things Work” class. Eventually, 158 students faced plagiarism charges.

“It was a huge shock,” Hall said. “I had no idea what we were going to do. The biggest number of cases I’d seen from a single professor was maybe four. Nothing like this.”

Thus, the biggest cheating scandal in University history sought out the student who was uniquely prepared to lead the response. Hall is believed to be the only two-term Honor Committee chair in school history, and led a similar organization at his private high school. Bright, organized and impeccably professional in his approach, he did not rattle easily. And when media from around the world began calling, they found Hall to be a skilled public speaker, comfortable and able to project an assured, mature presence.

Hall’s initial shock quickly gave way to determination. “He was pretty quick to say, ‘We need to think of a game plan,’” said Nicole Eramo, special assistant to the Honor Committee and its only full-time staff member.

Hall e-mailed President John T. Casteen III and other top University officials, informing them of the allegations as a courtesy. They unanimously replied by affirming U.Va.’s tradition of student self-governance and offered their support as needed.

The next day, Hall convened a 7 a.m. meeting of the Honor Committee’s current and immediate past executive committees to discuss how to approach the cases. The consensus: Let the system work.

“He’s such a good leader, and such a good listener,” said Virginia Rothschild, a 2001 U.Va. graduate and a member of the immediate past committee. “He knows what needs to be done, and he does it right away.”

Rothschild and the other fourth-year members of the former executive committee volunteered to return as investigators, despite being only weeks away from graduation. With few exceptions, they decided that each case would be investigated and tried separately.

“We found out very, very quickly that these cases were all different, even if they looked the same from the outside,” Hall said.

That sense of fair play was ingrained early in Hall. When his parents dropped him off at Woodberry Forest School near Orange, his mother reassured him that he was welcome back home in Shawnee Mission, Kan., should the school’s academics prove overwhelming. But, she warned, if he was expelled for cheating, he might find himself living in a tent in the back yard.

“I learned at Woodberry that academic integrity was important. It was something that mattered,” Hall said. “Character is more important than a grade on an English paper or chemistry test.”

Not that grades were a problem. His GPA at Woodberry was above 4.0, and he received a perfect score on his SATs, despite a list of extra-curricular activities that included participation in three sports, editing the school yearbook, singing in the choir and competing in public speaking contests. The school remembers him as “most likely one of the finest orators in Woodberry’s history.”

“He’s among the most outstanding students I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been here since 1968,” said U.Va. admissions dean John Blackburn. The U.Va. Alumni Association awarded Hall a four-year Jefferson Scholarship, given annually to only a handful of the most qualified entering students.

Hall sampled a variety of organizations at U.Va but gravitated toward the Honor Committee, where he began as an investigator. In his second year, he was among the nominees for its chair, determined by a committee vote. The post traditionally goes to a rising fourth-year student, but “there was no hesitation that Thomas could do it,” Rothschild said.

His first term featured a referendum on four proposed reforms to the honor system. His second term was to emphasize training and professionalism.

Then came the “How Things Work” cases.

Hall had hoped to keep news of the investigations quiet until at least the fall semester. But two weeks after the stack of papers arrived, the Cavalier Daily published a story on Bloomfield’s plagiarism-detection program. While it didn’t mention any honor cases being initiated, it was enough to pique interest at the Charlottesville Daily Progess, which ran a front-page story May 4 revealing that 122 students faced charges. It hit the Washington Post’s front page five days later and exploded from there. Wire-service stories appeared nationwide and as far away as England, Japan and New Zealand. The Honor Committee’s phone rang off the hook, and Hall’s e-mail account overflowed with inquiries.

Hall didn’t shrink from the attention. He appeared with Bloomfield on national television and radio shows and more than held his own under intense questioning.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “With my interest in politics, it was a chance to discuss tough issues and answer tough questions. It also gave us a chance to show off the honor system at U.Va.”

The Honor Committee held trials nearly every weekend throughout the fall semester and into the spring. Hall estimates he spent more than 40 hours per week on Honor business while completing the senior thesis for his double major in history and government (he has a 3.65 GPA) and making occasional trips to high schools around the state to talk about honor.

He hoped to have finished the “How Things Work” cases by the end of the fall semester, but had to settle for closing the books on 142 of the 158 cases by the time he left office March 31.

Next he’s hoping to defer his admission to U.Va.’s Law School for a year in order to attend the London School of Economics. After law school, he would like to stay in Virginia and perhaps work for a federal prosecutor, with an eye toward a political career.

“This experience on the Honor Committee has really forged my character and affirmed my direction in life,” he said.

Fifer shines in dark times

Abby Fifer By Anne Bromley

Anyone who despairs over the future should spend a little time with Abby Fifer for an in-depth class on optimism and dedication.

The Roanoke native and outgoing Student Council president epitomizes leadership and self-reliance, traits that were put to the ultimate test in the hours following the Sept. 11 attacks. Skills and poise developed over a lifetime and honed during her years at U.Va. culminated in a night of quick thinking and helping hands.

When she got to Old Cabell Hall for the students’ candlelight vigil for peace and understanding, the place was overflowing its 840-person capacity. The organizer was panicking.

“You’ve got to hold it outside in the amphitheater,” Fifer told him. “We can do this.”
But how would that work in the dark with no sound system? Fifer knew facilities technicians at Newcomb Hall, where her Student Council office is located. She made a few phone calls, and some student workers came from home to set up lights and microphones.

But there was another call Fifer wanted to make. She dialed U.Va. President John T. Casteen III and said, “I think you might want to come down here and see what your students are doing.”

He did come. And over the next few days, Fifer, Casteen, his staff and a few others organized the University’s memorial service on the country’s official day of mourning.

During her semesters and summers here, Fifer has “spent a lot of time getting to know how U.Va. is organized, and I’ve met a lot of people who give of themselves in ways most students don’t get to see,” she said. They’ve shown her that “students matter, the community matters. The people I’ve had the privilege to work with are really living for the students at this school. It’s not just a day job.”

The administrators and faculty who have gotten to know her have seen her take that observation to heart.

“Abby Fifer has been uncommonly principled, smart and focused in her work as Student Council president,” said Casteen.

She is proudest of the legacy she leaves with Student Council, she said, because “working with great people, you help improve things and help others develop programs that reach out to many people,” she said. The programs she has created or supported involve building community and connections: researching the need for a new student center; helping make the case for University-sponsored health insurance for graduate students; and reorganizing the Student Council committee structure to widen representation.

Another example of how Fifer saw a need and found a way to take care of it came from an observation about her Echols Scholars peers. Because they don’t have to take classes in certain subjects, Echols students theoretically could go through all four years without being exposed to a diversity of ideas and perspectives. She designed a seminar for first-year Echols students last year that was facilitated by third- and fourth-year students. It focused on issues of ethical importance, with different topics and guest speakers each week. The short course has been adopted permanently.

Fifer’s “intentions are always for the betterment of the community or the other person,” said Patricia M. Lampkin, interim vice president for student affairs. “She is courageous, intelligent and has a humility that is refreshing.”

“I never wanted to be in politics,” Fifer protested. “I like to think of myself as a teacher, [someone] who points people in the right direction.”

She’ll put her words into action next year, teaching in a private school. Eventually, she’d like to pursue a master’s degree in theology or religious studies.

She was elected to Student Council as a College representative in the second semester of her first year and served two more semesters. Joe Bilby, then-Student Council president, appointed her chief of staff and encouraged her to run for the top post after him.

Making first-year students feel more welcome has been another major area of influence. Fifer participated in the summer orientation program and, as Student Council president, performed a skit and gave a talk to incoming students at last fall’s Convocation. She also led the first-ever summer orientation team after her first year, and she set the bar high, according to Laurie Casteen, interim assistant director of orientation.

“As a leader, you always hope that the principles you stand for are present and active in the space you helped to create,” Fifer said. “You hope you’re contributing something positive.”

It’s clear that Abby Fifer has done that at U.Va.


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