Honor Code: How VCU stacks up

Honesty, truth and integrity.

Each are values that, as the VCU Honor System states, are “central to (the university’s) mission as an institution of higher education.”

Samantha Marsh, former chair of the academic undergraduate honor council, said the 2002 revision of VCU’s Honor System places honor at the center of the university community.

It’s easy to read and easy to follow,” Marsh said about the recent revision. “More institutions are gradually moving toward (being specific in their honor systems), so I think we’re above the bar.”

The new honor system lists six categories of Honor System violations:

  • cheating
  • plagiarizing
  • facilitating academic dishonesty
  • abusing academic materials
  • stealing academic materials
  • lying related to academic matters.

When a student is charged with a violation of the Honor Code, the school or college’s honor system faculty coordinator investigates it. If they deem the charge worthy of a trial a council composed of four students and three faculty members convene. The council hears testimony, deliberates and, if an individual is found guilty, assigns a sanction or series of sanctions to the individual.

“Our usual sanction is honor probation,” Marsh said, with that punishment comes a change in the grade for the course to either a failing mark (F) or a retroactive withdrawal (W).

Patrick Herrel, chief justice of the College of William and Mary’s undergraduate honor council, said that while William and Mary also uses a multiple sanction system, its usual punishment is suspension.

George Mason and James Madison universities similarly utilize a multiple sanction system. At both schools, 100 members serve on the honor committee: 100 students at GMU and a mix of faculty, undergraduate and graduate students at JMU. While George Mason uses a number of sanctions, James Madison imposes failure in the course and suspension for the fall or spring semester following a guilty verdict.

Meghan Sullivan, chair of the honor committee at University of Virginia, said the type of suspensions and the makeup of that university’s honor system are vastly different than that of other state universities.

“The whole process is governed by students,” Sullivan said. “If students are found guilty of an honor violation, they are dismissed from the university.”

The single-sanction system UVA employs has lasted since the 1820s and has been passed down as “a student tradition,” Sullivan said.

While William and Mary’s honor code has existed for well over three centuries and University of Richmond has had an honor system in place since 1830, James Madison’s honor code wasn’t established until 1909.

Both VCU and GMU (universities that didn’t exist until the mid-20th century) instituted honor systems in recent years – George Mason in 1957 and VCU in 1990.

Despite the relative youth of its honor system, VCU isn’t at a disadvantage, Marsh said.

“I think that we’re pretty equitable compared to (other institutions),” she said. “We’re pretty comparable with what we deal with (in terms of the type and number of violations).”

While VCU’s categories of honor violations are similar to those of universities such as JMU and GMU, it differs from other universities as to what constitutes an honor violation.

UR states that disclosing honor council information, the failure to report an honor code violation and registration irregularity (defined in the university’s honor handbook as “a violation of registration procedures designed to gain an advantage relative to other students”) are all violations.

UVA’s honor code, Sullivan said, was “set up to catch only lying, cheating and stealing.”

The university judiciary committee deals with problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, she said.

UVA students are only bound by the honor system in Charlottesville, Albemarle County and “at any time when he identifies himself as a University of Virginia student in order to gain the reliance and trust of others,” as noted on the university’s Web site.

At other institutions, however, that is not the case. VCU’s honor system states that violations are not limited to those that occur on its campuses.

Herrel said William and Mary’s system is completely comprehensive.

“Our honor code goes beyond just academics . . . it goes into your personal life. Lying to your friends, for example, is a violation of the honor code,” Herrel said. “It gives us this great sense of the community that makes up the college experience. It really has (developed) a culture of integrity and honor.”

That culture begins the first day new students step onto William and Mary’s campus when they participate in a formal ceremony to sign the honor pledge, Herrel said.

The universities of Richmond and Virginia conduct similar programming for honor education. Both universities devote portions of the new student orientation process to educating students about the honor system. While Richmond students sign the honor code in a formal ceremony, UVA students hold an honor convocation in the fall, honor awareness week in the spring and honor forums and roundtables on a regular basis. UVA student honor educators also conduct various education programs throughout the year within the university’s various schools.

At VCU, Marsh said, the most prominent element of honor education is the honor pledge, which students either accept or deny while registering for classes every semester. While this lacks the ceremony of other honor systems, she said, the honor pledge has become “much more public.”

“A standard is now being maintained,” Marsh said.

The main element that each university’s honor code shares is student involvement.

“Our honor code is completely run by students… which I think gives it legitimacy because it’s not something imposed by the university but by the students themselves,” Herrel said about William and Mary.

Marsh said that students are an integral part of the honor system at any university and they should remember that in their daily actions.

“There is an honor code and honor council out there…(and) students should be aware of the honor code and aware of (their) rights, so that they stay out of trouble,” she said.

Herrel agreed.

“When you get people talking about (honor), that can do nothing but good.”

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