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UVA students okay updated honor code

UVA freshmen sign the school's historic honor code.
Sanjay Suchak
UVA freshmen sign the school's historic honor code.

UVA’S Honor Code was not crafted by founder Thomas Jefferson, but Gabrielle Bray, Chair of the Honor Committee, says Jefferson knew how wild the sons of wealthy plantation owners could be.

“Early UVA students were absolute menaces to society," she contends. "At one point Thomas Jefferson came down from Monticello to yell at the students about their bad behavior.”

Faculty members brought over from Europe were also distressed by their incorrigible American pupils, and their fears grew as those students made plans to form a militia.

“They’d take their horses and run up and down the lawn," says Bray. "They had pistols on them. They were denied that. They did it anyway, and students were expelled.”

But they were, eventually, reinstated and their act of rebellion was celebrated annually by students. When, in 1840, a faculty member tried to intervene, the result was tragic.

“A professor came out of his room to try and encourage them to settle down, go to bed, and I believe the story goes that he was bear-hugging a student to try to grab a pistol, but it ended up with the professor being shot.”

For two years relations between students and faculty members were tense, but on July 4th, 1842 students agreed to pledge their honor on all their assignments, and they took responsibility for reporting, trying and expelling anyone found guilty of violating the new honor code.

“At one point everyone was invited to a hearing and they’d do it in the amphitheater, “ Bray says.

Since then, the system has evolved, with the establishment of an honor committee that hears charges and testimony in any possible case of lying, cheating or stealing. Until last year, the only penalty they could impose to those found guilty was expulsion – a punishment so harsh that Bray says panels of students hearing cases were reluctant to impose it.

“If you have a system that’s so extreme that people don’t use it, do you have an honor system at all? If you’re holding no one accountable, is it actually working?”

The code seemed especially harsh in 1971 when a student was kicked out for stealing cans of Coke.

“There was a malfunctioning vending machine in one of the dorms, so the students could get a can of Coke without paying for it,” Bray recalls.

And as the student body diversified the old system of honor seemed terribly unfair.

“There have been real, justified concerns about how we treat African-American students involved in the process," she explains. "Now, there’s a lot of focus on international students, student athletes, lower income students, first generation students, and how do we have a system that is fair to everyone when it is no longer true that everyone enters UVA with a very similar background?”

For example, not all students were prepared to write college papers. Some did not understand the concept of plagiarism or the need to credit the work of others.

“My high school was divided in half. There was the academic honors program that did a lot of college prep work, taught us how to cite papers. The other half of the school didn’t do that.”

And some students from other countries may also have committed academic offenses without realizing it. Those who were here on student visas and those who attended on athletic scholarships had more to lose than those who came from wealthy American families.

So last year students agreed to change the honor code, preventing anyone from being expelled for a violation, offering – instead – to allow those who admitted guilt to take a two semester leave or offer their own ideas about making amends. This year, student leaders proposed restoring the option of expulsion in extreme cases, and in March, 88% of students who voted agreed to the honor code overhaul.

Gabrielle Bray says she and other committee members devoted a tremendous amount of time to crafting these reforms.

“We pulled some long hours on this one. Why did you do it? I watched the response to Unite the Right as a Jewish woman in the South. I think the strength and the vigor and the care that UVA displayed for each other id partially due to this culture of the community of trust that we have.”

The change comes just in time to confront a new risk -- artificial intelligence writing student papers.

“No institution of higher education is prepared, but it is an opportunity to adapt and to think more closely about what the purposes of some assignments are. I know some of us are leaning more on oral exams. Some professors are having students show more preparatory work to demonstrate that they actually wrote the paper, so it’s an evolving story for sure.”

And Bray says UVA will attempt to better educate students about the honor code when new rules take effect July first.

Updated: April 10, 2023 at 9:25 AM EDT
Editor's Note: The University of Virginia is a financial supporter of Radio IQ.
Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief