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Cheating Scandal Met Its Foil In U.Va. Leader

May 6, 2002-- 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 University of Virginia 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," said Hall, who will graduate on May 19. "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 U.Va. 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 on emphasizing 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."

Contact: Dan Heuchert, (434) 924-7676

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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Last Modified: Monday, 06-May-2002 15:04:51 EDT
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