Scholars Discuss Honor Code, Cheating and Ethical Challenges

April 18, 2012 — It's a typical scenario at many universities: To prevent cheating during exams, students are seated with empty chairs on all sides, and while they take their test, proctors prowl the aisles.

University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan contrasted that scenario at other universities with U.Va.'s – where professors often feel free to hand out a test and then leave the students in the room without supervision – in her introductory remarks at the conference, "Telling the Truth and Doing the Right Thing: Accountability, Guilt and Forgiveness in the Ethical University," which was held April 13 and 14 in the Darden School's Abbot Auditorium.

Participants in the multidisciplinary conference discussed a range of issues related to the ethical development of college students and the challenges they face. The group also talked about faculty and administrative roles and the role of academic institutions in cultivating an ethical atmosphere.

Sullivan said the two testing scenarios illustrate different expectations and reactions to the possibility of cheating. She encouraged the participants to consider students' motivations for cheating and how to maintain honor.

Although the vast majority of U.Va. students ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating classes, they can't all be in the top 10 percent of their college class. If they can't perform at the same level, some think they have failed, Sullivan said.

"When perfection is the baseline, students might think that perfection must be achieved at all costs, even though it clashes with their ethical values," she said.

Several comments from speakers and audience members illustrate the conference. In one discussion, Russ Federman, director of U.Va. Counseling and Psychological Services, echoed Sullivan's words as he talked about what students perceive is at stake in their college educations, saying they worry in a way his generation didn't.

"Some students are absolutely panicked if they don't have a plan for what they're going to do after college," he said, "and they think being adrift means they're a failure."

Other speakers attributed this to a business model being applied to higher education.

"This is a revolutionary change, to see higher education as a product in the market," said guest speaker Michael J. Rustin, a sociology professor at the University of East London. He criticized changes in the British system of higher education, which has expanded dramatically over the past three decades. Although that has brought increased access to more young people, institutions have been pressured to reduce costs – and these are incompatible goals, he said.

"In this environment, competition dominates – between universities operated as corporations, academics seeking to maximize returns from their production of knowledge, and students struggling to realize the best return on their investment from years of study which they believe is likely to determine their future life opportunities.

"The university as a moral community has been compromised by these developments," he said. "More trust is required between faculty and students than in business transactions."

"His diagnosis of the U.K. applies to the U.S.," said U.Va.'s James F. Childress, University Professor and director of the Institute for Practical Ethics and Public Life, who responded to Rustin's comments. On the other hand, educating students to be active and engaged citizens for the public good continues to be encouraged at U.Va., he said, mentioning the Day of Dialogue and innovative programs that have the goal of embedding ethics within them and contributing to a community of trust.

U.Va.'s Honor System plays a crucial role in engendering and fostering this trust, but Childress said the single sanction – expulsion for being found guilty of lying, stealing or cheating – possibly thwarts the development of trust. Faculty and students may be reluctant to report a possible violation because of the single sanction, resulting in fewer convictions, he said.

Childress endorsed the oft-discussed option of graduated sanctions without expulsion, because they would allow "for the possibility of forgiveness, redemption and rehabilitation," he said.

Alexander "Sandy" Gilliam, U.Va. historian, and Ann Marie McKenzie, chair of the Honor Committee, focused on U.Va.'s Honor System in another session. Other talks included: "The Modern University and the Good Society," "Unaccountable Predicaments: Normative Expectations and Self-Medication Among College Students," "Why Elephants Weep: The Evolutionary Biology of Morality and Ethics" and "Building a More Ethical World: The Role of the University."

The conference was co-sponsored by the College of Arts & Sciences' Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures, the Institute for Practical Ethics and Public Life, Counseling and Psychological Services and the Sorensen Trust for the Study of British Object Relations in the Department of Student Health.

– by Anne Bromley