Putting honor in focus

The Honor Committee

Today, The Cavalier Daily published an article discussing the ongoing efforts of Families for Honor, an organization founded by the parent of a student who was convicted of an honor offense during the 2008 academic year.

The group paints its mission in broad strokes - according to its website, the overarching goal is "to manifest more fairness and equitable justice for any student involved in the UVA Honor System or its disciplinary actions" and "to bring more process transparency and public accountability to a tradition at UVA and to preserve its core foundation and principle." Families for Honor released an 18-page platform outlining more specific reform objectives earlier this year, and founding member Barbara Schaedel indicated that the group is looking to build working relationships with the Board of Visitors, University President Teresa A. Sullivan and Patricia Lampkin, vice president and chief student affairs officer.

Although the organization's aims are fairly comprehensive, there are a few basic driving issues that have garnered significant attention in recent years. The complications, both logistic and ethical, that arose when applying honor to a Semester at Sea community comprised of many non-University students threatened to undermine the results of the controversial 2008 trials aboard the ship. The real crux of the issue, however, relates to the Honor Committee's working definitions of both plagiarism and intent.

Last year's Committee, with the leadership of Chair David Truetzel, sought modest reform to the system. Plagiarism in particular received a fair amount of scrutiny from Committee members, particularly as external pressure mounted from speakers during the community concerns portion of weekly meetings. Ultimately, JJ Litchford, former vice chair for community relations, created a plagiarism supplement, which passed unanimously last November. The supplement added to the definition of plagiarism, stating that the act is committed if a reader can "match your words and phrasing with those of your source" and quotation marks have not been used - even if the paraphrase has been cited.

Likewise, the Committee frequently revisited the topic of Semester at Sea, eventually deciding to alter the appeals process by allowing convicted students to request additional proceedings on Grounds. This change was an improvement, but it is difficult to avoid the fundamental problem of making the honor system work in an environment with students who are unfamiliar with the spirit of the honor code or how the system is meant to operate. For example, because of the small size of the ship, it is implausible for student juries to be used without bias: People in such a small community likely would know one another well. Conviction of an offense by faculty members or administrators, not a jury of one's peers, is a distortion of honor as understood at the University.

That is not meant to say that students participating in the Semester at Sea program should not be subject to rules prohibiting lying, cheating or stealing. But if the honor code cannot be applied in this circumstance in the same manner as it is on Grounds, then it becomes difficult to determine a logical and fair way to operate this particular system on the ship.

Unfortunately, last year's Committee did not address the most pressing problem at hand: the ambiguity inherent to the intent clause. Although it was beneficial to clarify the definition of plagiarism, more confusion originated from the intent clause as it pertains to plagiarism.

This editorial is part one of a two-part series. Please see tomorrow's issue of The Cavalier Daily.

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