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A Matter of Honor : Cheating. Lying. Stealing. With these kind of scandals dogging college campuses, it would seem integrity has fallen from favor. But in reality, codes of conduct are on the rise--and it's often the students who are pushing them.

April 03, 1994|RUDY ABRAMSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LEXINGTON, Va. — Without warning, a drum roll explodes in the darkness after midnight, echoing through the still barracks, jolting the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute out of their sleep. It is ominous and relentless, as urgent as it is foreboding.

At every door of the four-story complex, there is a heavy knock, an order to fall out and, above the drumming, a shouted, repeated announcement: "Your Honor Court has met . . . Your Honor Court has met." In every room, the lights snap on.

Within minutes, dressed in robes and pajamas, chins tucked, chests out, all 1,200 young men of the VMI Corps of Cadets stand at attention in ranks around a dim inner courtyard, assembled for the excruciatingly painful ritual of a "drumming out." One of their own has cheated. Hehas been banished for breaking their sacred Code of Honor.

Resplendent in dress uniforms, members of the Honor Court march through an arch into the yard. The court president announces the name of a cadet found guilty of violating the code and intones: "He has placed personal gain above personal honor. He has left the institute, never to return. His name is never to be mentioned again."

It is a moment none of them will forget. After 30 years, Lt. Col. Mike Strickler, a VMI graduate now on the institute's staff, vividly remembers the spring morning when a classmate was drummed out for cheating, just 10 days before he was to graduate. During one year while Strickler was a cadet, six members of the regiment were drummed out. In another year, there were only two. He remembers them all.

He also remembers the 12-word code that every VMI "rat" memorizes the day he arrives: "A cadet will neither lie, cheat, steal nor tolerate those who do."

That code, said Danny Felton, one of about 225 fourth classmen due to graduate from the 155-year-old institute this spring, "is the cadet's most cherished possession."

Variations on this rule of conduct are embraced by 100 or so institutions of higher learning, in addition to the Army, Navy and Air Force academies and venerable military schools such as VMI and the Citadel. They range from small private schools such as Washington and Lee and Bryn Mawr to Princeton and Rice, and to the University of Maryland with 38,000 students.

At some, they are enshrined and forgotten in student handbooks; at others, they have become the cornerstone of academic integrity.

More often than not, honor systems have been installed at the urging of students, in many cases because of concern over cheating.

Although schools with viable honor systems remain a small minority, there is, says Samuel Sadler, vice president for student affairs at the College of William & Mary, "a decided movement" toward making codes a fixture on more campuses.

Typically, the codes explicitly forbid lying, cheating and stealing, and require students to take some action when they have knowledge of violations by their peers. Punishment is usually meted out by student tribunals. In return, the school administration allows unproctored examinations, with students sometimes taking the tests at a time and place of their choosing.

Nearly every week, Washington and Lee, whose campus adjoins that of VMI, receives inquiries or visits from other schools interested in its widely regarded system.

Students at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., are expected to vote soon on adoption of a code. An honor system is under serious consideration at Georgetown University in Washington.

Other schools, such as Duke and Johns Hopkins, have taken steps to strengthen their codes, and others, including Stanford, are contemplating ways to enhance honor systems.

Last month, University of Virginia students turned out in extraordinary numbers for an honor code referendum, voting by a margin of 3 to 1 to retain a system that, for 152 years, has required permanent expulsion for an honor code conviction. Codes have been stiffened elsewhere, too.

So why should this 19th-Century creation--expanded, codified and preserved by military academies and old schools for men of the Southern gentry--now flourish? Especially now, in a generation that hates rules? Even in mega-universities where neither race, gender, history, culture, aspiration nor personal acquaintance provide unity?

The answer is evidently a sharpened concern over academic integrity--a subject brought dramatically to mind by the cheating scandal that has dogged the U.S. Naval Academy for more than a year.

Cheating, studies show, is pervasive. It involves students struggling for A's and admission to prestigious graduate schools as well as those flirting with academic failure.

A landmark survey of 6,000 students in 31 of the country's prestigious colleges and universities two years ago found that nearly 70% had cheated--if all manner of minor infractions were taken into account. The figures approached 80% for non-honor code schools and 60% for those with codes.

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