Report spotlights honor accusations
By Dan Heuchert
Results from a new faculty analysis suggest that cheating at the University is either underreported or often goes undetected.
The report also shows that international students, athletes, African-American students and men have honor cases initiated against them at disproportionately higher rates. Once formally accused, however, they are convicted at a rate consistent with that of the rest of the student body.
The report, compiled by a faculty advisory panel, was released at an Oct. 31 meeting of the student-run Honor Committee and is available online at www.virginia.edu/honor/. It reviewed data that the Honor Committee gathered between 1998 and 2003.
The faculty panel began looking into honor-case initiation rates after reviewing data that the Honor Committee compiled. They received the full cooperation of the committee in reviewing the data, said Nicole P. Eramo, special assistant to the Honor Committee.
“Our feeling is that there [is] lots of anecdotal stuff running around Grounds about the honor system,” particularly among the faculty, said associate nursing professor Ann Hamric, a member of the faculty committee. “There isn’t as much really balanced dialogue. We’re trying to replace rhetoric with data, as a good place to start the dialogue.”
The facts the report cites are almost certain to start discussion. To wit:
• When a plagiarism-detecting computer program identified which students would be accused of cheating in the infamous “How Things Work” cases, these students were 19.53 times more likely to be accused than the overall student body. • International students are 4.99 times more likely to be accused of an honor offense than domestic students.
• Athletes are 4.27 times more likely to be accused than nonathletes.
• African-American students are 3.38 times more likely to be accused than white students.
• Men are 1.89 times more likely to be accused than women.
Advisory committee members were cautious in analyzing the report’s findings.
“The data tell us something’s up — something significant,” said politics professor James Sofka, who directs the Echols Scholar program. “What the data doesn’t tell us is why.”
Several faculty committee members expressed surprise at the dimension of the underreporting factor suggested by comparing the “How Things Work” accusation rate to that of the student body as a whole. In 2000, physics professor Louis Bloomfield used a plagiarism-detecting computer program, which identified more than 120 students whose term papers appeared to contain identical passages during the previous five semesters. He then initiated honor charges against them.
“Care must be taken in interpreting these data, because the Bloomfield experience may not be representative of the Universitywide behavior. Nonetheless, the size of the discrepancy is troubling and may indicate that a majority of honor offenses are either not being detected or, if detected, are not resulting in initiations,” the report states.
“I think we miss a lot of it,” said astronomy professor and committee member Charles Tolbert, who has taught at the University since 1967. “Part of it is that people may see cheating and not do anything about it.”
Honor Committee chairwoman Meghan Sullivan, a fourth-year student, said some of the underreporting may result from ignorance of how the honor system works. Though faculty members and graduate instructors initiate 86 percent of honor cases, some new faculty members don’t receive adequate training in the system.
“I honestly don’t think we have done enough for faculty,” Sullivan said. “Part of it is us, but part of it is access to new faculty.” Some schools and departments allot only 10 minutes of their orientation process to the Honor Committee to discuss the honor system, she noted.
While initiating an honor case is as easy as calling the Honor Committee or contacting each school’s honor representatives, Honor Committee representatives typically describe the progression of honor cases through the system and field questions from new faculty, Eramo said.
The committee seeks to spread the word about honor by inviting new faculty to an informational dinner, preparing faculty handbooks and seeking to pair new instructors with senior professors who can serve as a resource, she said.
The higher rates of initiation against international students, African-American students, athletes and men drew much concern.
The report offers four possible explanations: “spotlighting,” or excessive attention paid to certain subgroups of students; “dimming,” a related phenomenon in which less attention is focused upon majority students; differential rates of detected offenses among different subgroups; or “a lack of Honor acculturation among subgroups of students.”
No matter the explanation, faculty committee members acknowledged that the differential initiation rates paint an unflattering picture of the University for prospective students.
“I think that in a lot of ways these are damning statistics,” Hamric said. “It’s hard to see how the University comes out glowing like a rose on this.”
P. Paxton Marshall, an engineering professor and associate dean for undergraduate programs who has served on the faculty for more than 17 years, was hesitant to label his colleagues as holding prejudice against spotlighted groups.
“I think the spotlighting-dimming explanations are perhaps too simplistic,” he said. “They perhaps imply an intent on the part of initiators that does not exist. But on the other hand, what else besides that could explain the differential rates?”
One possibility is that certain subgroups may actually cheat more often.
Psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, who studies moral behavior, said that some international students — the subgroup identified as most disproportionately accused — come from cultures that “have strong norms about cooperation.”
“It would seem logical to me that students from highly collectivist cultures would approach the challenges of college in a more collectivist way” — for instance, working together on individual assignments, he said.
Donald McCabe, a Rutgers University professor who has long studied cheating, agreed.
“A lot of international students are coming from backgrounds where cheating is viewed differently,” he said. Students from Asian cultures, who already feel they have a linguistic disadvantage, may particularly feel pressured to help one another out, he said.
Surveys based on self-reporting consistently find that men admit cheating more often, McCabe said, although the gender gap may be narrowing as more women enter formerly male-dominated fields such as business and engineering and adopt more “male” behavior, he said.
McCabe also has found that students on the high and low ends of class rankings tend to cheat more than those in the middle, he said. The top performers are ultra-competitive and seeking an edge, while those at the bottom often cheat just to stay in school, keep a scholarship or remain eligible for athletics, he said.
Some U.Va. professors suggest that some subgroups’ cheating can be easier to detect. Marshall offered the example of a student who struggles with written English. “If the student has trouble with sentence structure, grammar, etcetera, and then a certain paragraph has perfect structure, it can be suspicious,” he said.
Conversely, other students may be better at concealing their cheating. “Kids who go to prep schools may learn to cheat better,” Tolbert said.
The faculty committee did take heart from its finding that, once charges were initiated, the targeted subgroups were no more likely to be convicted than the overall student rate — a finding it attributed to “high evidentiary standards and procedural safeguards.”
“We were extremely pleased to see that,” Sofka said.
The report recommends that the Honor Committee investigate what factors lead into the differential rates of initiation; continue to improve its honor education efforts; take further steps to encourage students, faculty and administrators to initiate all honor cases; and to continue collecting and monitoring the case-initiation data.
The Honor Committee voted Nov. 7 to accept the recommendations,