How much integrity does VCU Honor code really show?

Illustration by: Norine King
Illustration by: Norine King
Illustration by: Norine King

Emily Himes
Contributing Columnist

What does student debt and the VCU honor code policy have in common? Both may cost thousands of dollars, exhibit unforgivable circumstances and years dealing with the aftermath. For first-time offenders with minor offenses, the VCU honor policy is not only unsympathetic but relentless and can cost students thousands of dollars in tuition. It may pay for VCU to reconsider its core policies.

Plagiarism and cheating are the most common offenses that come through the doors of the VCU Office of Honor and Integrity. The majority of these offenders are freshman who are new to the college education system and the high expectations, low tolerance and pricey bill that accompany it. Grouped among the new young faces was myself, who realized very quickly that although the VCU Honor Council was swift, it was far from painless.

32 percent of an assignment worth 1.5 percent of my overall grade — that was the amount of poor paraphrasing that delivered me an automatic fail in a class within the VCUarts Theatre Department. This would cost me three credits which are worth $365 each. Coupled with the supplies and required textbooks needed for the course and I’m at an additional $1,100 in debt.

The office gives students the option to submit a written statement to essentially beg for a less severe punishment. I took this opportunity to fully illustrate my financial situation, my understanding of plagiarism and take responsibility for my offense. It was a humiliating and nerve wracking situation that ultimately yielded no results, as the council denied my appeal faster than I was convicted.There was no proof that they even read my appeal.

For a student who is already struggling to pay for college, that price means a lot more than an inconvenient expense. My honor infraction meant hours spent contacting my bank and my grant provider to ensure I could budget in the extra debt. It meant an incredible amount of stress and intense anxiety when faced with the question of whether or not I would get internships and scholarships, with an honor code probation on my transcript.

The most redeeming part of the process came from my advisor from the Office of Integrity who said, “I thought you might have paraphrased the entire thing because the rest was really good and I really enjoyed reading it.”

There is a lucky minority of students that get the second recommended punishment: an honor code violation and an automatic fail on the assignment in question. This is a completely reasonable punishment for first offenders, which bears the weight of honor probation in addition to an impact in your overall class grade.

Yet these students who receive this punishment, are few and far between.

Do incoming freshman truly deserve to waste thousands of dollars, days of work and a drastic GPA drops for minute offenses? VCU thinks so. The recommended punishment for first offenders is an automatic fail on the assignment, automatic fail in the class and five years of honor probation. What is supposed to be a system that protects the property of authors and upholds student honesty feels almost vengeful in nature and vindictive at best.

Creating an adequate honor code policy is tricky. Make it too strict and professors won’t report because of the extreme impact, make it too forgiving and every single instance will be reported. But perhaps there’s a middle ground: encourage students not to plagiarize, punish students for plagiarism, show mercy for first offenders, and stay at a university standard.

Money doesn’t grow on trees and time isn’t recyclable. Being accused or caught for plagiarism is embarrassing enough. The stakes are too high for the honor code to be this harsh. It’s time to rethink recommended policies and express compassion within the VCU Honor system.

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