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Washington & Lee honor code eases stress of finals

Thursday - 12/13/2012, 10:32am  ET

By NICK ANDERSON
The Washington Post

LEXINGTON, Va. (AP) - At many colleges during finals week, students chug coffee in all-night cram sessions and worry about grueling schedules of back-to-back tests. Professors and teaching assistants circle exam rooms in an often fruitless quest to deter those tempted to cheat.

Here at Washington and Lee University, an honor system rooted in Gen. Robert E. Lee's vision of the gentleman scholar means the campus is far more relaxed than the norm. Students choose when they want to take their finals, and faculty members leave them entirely unmonitored during the tests.

This degree of trust, experts say, is a rarity in higher education and offers a counterpoint in the national debate about academic security. Schools across the country are wrestling with questions about cellphone access in exam rooms, Internet-facilitated plagiarism and identity verification for online students. This year, Harvard University faced a widely publicized cheating scandal involving student collaboration on take-home tests.

Elements of Washington and Lee's methods can be found elsewhere. The University of Virginia and others have well-known honor systems. Many professors choose not to proctor exams. But few schools replicate the format used here, with undergraduate final exams that are self-scheduled and unproctored. Haverford College, in Pennsylvania, has a similar testing system.

"It gives us a lot of independence and a lot of leeway," Jackie Calicchio, 20, a third-year student from Florida, said after she returned a history test Monday afternoon at Washington and Lee's Newcomb Hall. She dismissed any suggestion that the culture of trust might invite abuse. "I highly doubt any of my peers would take advantage of it," Calicchio said. "None of us want to disappoint each other. If somebody cheats, it's an insult to the entire community."

The rule here is simple and unbending: one strike and you're out.

Though faced with that severe punishment, students do cheat from time to time at Washington and Lee. The 2,200-student private university in the Great Valley of Virginia makes no pretense of having reached academic utopia. Every year, a few students are forced to withdraw from the school after being found guilty of lying, cheating or stealing under the student-run honor system.

This week, a notice on campus bulletin boards revealed that a student who plagiarized a biology paper had left the school. "In the student's defense," the public notice said, "he/she said that he/she was under an immense amount of stress from events beyond his/her control that made it difficult for him/her to think clearly."

Donald McCabe, a professor of management at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, who has studied cheating in higher education, estimated that there are at least 25 colleges with honor codes or systems but probably fewer than 100. He said Washington and Lee's version is known as one of the most expansive and successful.

"I would trust a Washington and Lee alum with anything I own," McCabe said. "I'm sure there are alums that are bums, no question. But the ones I've met are all good" people.

The university, which traces its history to the founding of a classical academy here in 1749, was named for George Washington after the nation's first president endowed it in 1796 with a $20,000 gift of stock.

Lee, who was president of the college after the Civil War ended in 1865 until his death in 1870, is credited with articulating a statement on honor that still resonates.

"Young gentleman, we have no printed rules here," Lee told a student named Wallace E. Colyar in 1866. "We have but one rule, and that is that every student must be a gentleman."

Officials point to a cheating scandal in 1954 as a turning point for the university. Two football players were discovered that year to have cheated on a geology quiz. They then "blew the whistle on others," according to a 1998 alumni magazine article, revealing that some fellow students had access to master keys to professors' offices and stole and duplicated quizzes. The university, in the aftermath, bowed out of major scholarship athletics.

"It was a fairly profound decision," university President Kenneth P. Ruscio said. "It was controversial and defining for the institution."

Nowadays, honor is a selling point for the school, perhaps as powerful for recruiting as its tranquil campus, with a series of academic halls that form the historic Colonnade facing the chapel where Lee is buried. Trust runs so deep that students often leave backpacks, textbooks, cellphones and laptops for hours or even days on open desks in a publicly accessible library, assuming that their belongings will be there when they return.

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