The latest and heftiest lawsuit against the University and the Honor Committee has brought the issues of due process, student self-governance and racial bias in the University's renowned student-run honor system into the public light.
Former student Ayola Greene, a 1992 graduate of the Architecture School, filed a lawsuit Jan. 1 seeking $10.5 million from the University and the Honor Committee for racial discrimination and for violating her constitutional due process rights in a trial that took place nearly seven years ago -- a trial that resulted in the revocation of her undergraduate degree.
Greene had been charged with writing a series of bad checks totaling $150 from a closed New York City-based bank account while she was a student at the University. The Honor Committee defined this as lying and cheating and therefore adequate grounds for taking away her degree.
In 1995, the University and the Honor Committee formally rescinded Greene's degree, a decision which Greene and her attorney asked to be repealed, but to no avail.
Now, five years later, Greene and her new attorney, Northern Virginia-based Maynard M. Henry, have smacked a $10.5 million suit on the University, alleging Greene did not write checks on a closed account, that she never received notification by mail of her honor trial and that her being marked as "black" in Honor Committee documents led to unfair proceedings.
"If she was a non-minority, we probably wouldn't be talking today," Henry said. "The record speaks for itself. There is one, a higher disproportion of minorities than non-minorities brought before the Honor Committee and two, there is a greater number of minority students that have adverse action taken against them that also go before the Honor Committee."
In the past few years, the University's honor system has come under much scrutiny for its alleged racial bias against minorities.
"At one time or another the Honor Committee was biased because the University itself was biased," Black Student Alliance Co-President Kazz Pinkard said.
In a five-year study released in 1996, the Honor Committee's Diversity Task Force showed that even though black students make up only 12 percent of the student body, they accounted for 35 percent of honor investigations and 23 percent of students dismissed.
Scott Tumperi, who was the Honor Committee's vice chair for trials when Greene's degree was rescinded, maintained that keeping statistics about race was for internal record-keeping purposes and that Greene being marked as "black" on her papers should not have influenced the Committee's procedures.
"It's not a valid point," Tumperi said.
Current Honor Committee Chairman Hunter Ferguson also said the Committee continues to keep records for statistical purposes.
"We keep track of students' gender, school year, school they're in and race, purely for statistical reasons," Ferguson said. "In no way does keeping track of a student's race factor into the decision-making process of individual honor cases. The contention that the Committee uses record keeping on how to make decisions is bogus."
In addition to the racial bias allegation, Greene also said the Honor Committee knew her checking account was indeed open, even after the Committee charged her with writing checks from a closed account.
Henry said Greene could not speak about the case and its specifics.
"She wrote some checks but did not know that they were bad at the time," he said.
He added Greene's bank account was being monitored by relatives in New York and that to her understanding, there was enough money in the bank account to cover the checks she wrote.
"However, the University and the Honor Committee totally disregarded this information and brought charges against her with full knowledge of the fact that the account was not closed," Henry said.
But writing checks on a closed account is a serious allegation -- one that constitutes both lying and stealing.
The Honor Committee's Bad Check Committee specifically is designed to ensure that students can figure out their finances without having to go to trial, said Amy Campbell, former Bad Check Committee chairwoman.
Campbell said in a normal school year she saw about five new bad check cases a week, most of which were "forgetful" college students who had not handled their finances properly.
The Bad Check Committee coordinates with local merchants, and once a check has bounced, the Bad Check Committee sends a letter to the student as a warning to clear up the matter.
If the student does not respond, a second letter is sent, this one stating that a first letter has been sent already and that the student must take care of it or he or she will be placed on non-academic suspension.
Non-academic suspension means suspension of privileges that come with being a student. Students on non-academic suspension still can go to classes but cannot pick up copies of their transcripts, cannot enter the University dining halls, cannot go to the gym and cannot use their University ID card for other privileges.
After being placed on non-academic suspension, the student again is asked to go to the merchant to discuss resolving the issue. Usually, the student meets with members of the Bad Check Committee, oftentimes for financial counseling.
"We literally make it as easy as possible," Campbell said.
One outlet for a student in financial difficulty is the Ivey F. Lewis Honor Loan Fund. The Fund is maintained by the Office of the Dean of Students and is available to students for $500 at a time.
In the 1940s, Lewis was dean of the College when a sandwich peddler on the Lawn held a monopoly on selling food to Lawn residents. Lewis had said the peddler could continue to sell his popular sandwiches as long as the man gave part of the profits to the University. Lewis put part of the profits into a loan fund that is still available to students today.
If a student on non-academic suspension still has not taken care of the matter after two weeks, he or she will be placed on non-academic warning.
But when the student ignores any of the Bad Check Committee's requests, the student is placed on trial.
"The Bad Check Committee is not about catching students who write bad checks," Campbell said. But "writing checks on a closed account is considered lying and stealing."
Greene's lawsuit also alleges she was not notified of her trial and therefore was not granted due process.
Henry said Greene did not receive anything by mail indicating she must go to trial.
"The University did not give her notification ... anyone has a right to notification," he said.
He added he is confident the University did not give Greene any notification.
"The University has told us in the past, in fact-to-face meetings, that they do not have any documentation indicating that they gave Ms. Greene notice of her trial," Henry said. "They don't have the letter and they don't have the certified return receipt."
Ferguson maintained the Honor Committee practices fair procedures by sending notification via certified mail.
"That was the practice back then and it is practiced now," he said. "It's a fundamental procedure that people be notified and given the opportunity to be heard."
Even though Greene's allegations now hold the public spotlight, all lawsuits against the University gain attention, no matter what the allegations may charge.
"Litigation is a national trend," Ferguson said. But "we're going to handle cases and run the system in the most efficient and fair way possible."
Henry said he hopes the Committee directs its fairness to reinstating Greene's diploma.
"We're hoping they write us a check and give us her diploma back," he said. "It's four years of her life that's been wiped away"