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Honor System needs to be overhauled, Bloomfield tells Faculty Senate
Senate to study system and issue report in spring

Louis Bloomfield
Photo by Rebecca Arrington
“It took too much of my life. It was two years that came out of my research, my writing and my family, not in that order. And there was no recognition for it.”

Louis A. Bloomfield
Physics professor

Staff Report

The Honor System is seriously flawed and needs an overhaul, physics professor Louis A. Bloomfield told his Faculty Senate colleagues at its Oct. 14 meeting.

Bloomfield, who initiated 158 honor cases in April 2001 stemming from term paper irregularities in his “How Things Work” course, said the faculty should stop being the police of the system and demand that the students assume responsibility for a community of trust.

The Faculty Senate is weighing the role of the faculty in the Honor System, a student-run program that mandates immediate expulsion for those found guilty of intentional cheating, lying and stealing.

Robert E. Davis, chairman of the Faculty Senate, said the issue will be examined over the next year by the Faculty Senate’s Academic Affairs Committee. After meeting with students on the Honor Committee and faculty honor advisers, the committee will develop recommendations. Davis said he expects to report to the Faculty Senate in the spring.

“There are some things we can do, such as setting up a faculty support structure, which would have resources and information for faculty members,” Davis said. “The students have people they can go to on legal issues.”

The ultimate goal is having “an Honor System in which all faculty are full participants and partners,” Davis added in a follow-up interview. Faculty and students need to address barriers that discourage faculty participation.

Bloomfield said that in the ideal system, students would live honorable lives and enforce the system themselves. But the students want the respect without the responsibility. “The community of trust is too much work [for the students],” he said.

As proof, he cited two contemporary changes: permitting faculty to initiate violation cases, and dropping the non-toleration clause, which required students aware of honor violations to report them.“We should never have accepted that,” he said.

Bloomfield believes that the onus for reporting cases has fallen primarily to faculty. Information provided by the Honor Committee bears that out. Over a three-year period, faculty-reported cases averaged 80 percent and ranged from 64 percent in 2000-01 to 90 percent in 2001-02.

That was the year Bloomfield made international news with his computer program that spotted similarities in student papers. Of 158 cases that came from his complaints, 28 students left the University admitting guilt before their cases came to trial and 20 others were found guilty at trial, including three graduates whose degrees were revoked.

As he recounted details from his ordeal, Bloomfield asked the faculty members not to consider it his story but to look at it through the eyes of a junior faculty member, facing an apparent honors infraction for the first time.

Faculty members are reluctant to file cases because they are a “time sink,” Bloomfield said. There is no guarantee of the outcome, the faculty member has no support staff, gets no reimbursement for expenses and there is a tremendous sense of personal responsibility, especially for a guilty verdict. He said faculty members face being put on trial themselves, threatened with lawsuits and committing “careericide.”

Bloomfield said while he received moral support from faculty, students, alumni and community members, he got no support from the administration.

“It is hard to go through something like this and hear nothing from the administration,” he said.

President John T. Casteen III, who attended the Faculty Senate meeting, said since the process is adversarial and the accused student is innocent until proven guilty, the administration has been advised by its legal counsel not to demonstrate support for either side in the process.

There does not seem to be a general understanding of the hazards for the faculty in the system, Casteen said, adding that the Honor System seemed stronger when students alone brought the charges, because then the accuser was subject to the same standards as the accused.

The reality of the Honor System, Bloomfield said, is that while most students are honest, they do not see it as a social contract. They do not want to turn in friends, be viewed by their peers as a rat or feel they have wrecked someone’s life.

“This system is student-run the way U.Va. is state-funded,” Bloomfield said, believing that the system is now driven primarily by faculty-initiated cases. But faculty avoid the Honor System because of the hassles involved with it, he said.
Bloomfield called for students to introduce more sanctions besides expulsion, saying that is too drastic and discourages students from enforcing the system. The single sanction also discourages plea bargaining. Penalties, he said, should be expanded to allow for rehabilitation and maybe feature community service or a one-semester suspension.

Carey Mignerey, chairman of the Honor Committee, who also attended the Faculty Senate meeting, said students have to vote on changes in the Honor System and, in past votes, the majority has supported the single sanction.

Nicole P. Eramo, special assistant to the Honor Committee, said there is a referendum on the single sanction about every five years, with 60 to 70 percent approval among students who vote. In spring 2002, students rejected a proposal to allow an “informed retraction,” which would have functioned like a plea bargain.

Mignerey said in a follow-up interview that other schools around the country are dealing with the same issues, even with honor systems that do not have the single sanction and are not student-run.“Many of the issues that the Faculty Senate has identified, the Honor Committee also recognizes. Through a partnership we can work to resolve or at lease alleviate the problems,” he said.

Bloomfield spoke passionately in support of the Honor System when the cases were making headlines. “It’s the cornerstone of a living contract between the students of the University and the University community as a whole,” he told students in August 2001, according to a report in the Daily Progress. In October 2001, he told CNN, “It really was my duty at that point to investigate, to try to support the Honor System here.”

But after the recent Faculty Senate meeting, Bloomfield said if he was again confronted with similar circumstances of academic dishonesty, he would not pursue an honor case.

“It took too much of my life,” he said. “It was two years that came out of my research, my writing and my family, not in that order. And there was no recognition for it. It was a total loss.”

Despite his experience, Bloomfield said he believes in the principles of an Honor System that works to provide the best education and academic freedom.

“I would love to have an Honor System,” Bloomfield said “The students should fix it.”


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