Undergraduate Honor Council cases spike: Fifteen cases reported in spring semester came from one academic department

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There were 46 reported honor code violations in the 2018 spring semester. Most of the cases reviewed involved cheating. MARGARET LASHLEY / THE FLAT HAT

In spring 2018, the College of William and Mary’s Undergraduate Honor Council reviewed a record number of cases, as per an annual report released at the beginning of the semester.

There were 46 reported violations in the spring 2018 semester, some of which are still being processed.

Since fall 2013, no more than 20 students have ever been found responsible of honor violations in a given semester. In each of the three semesters leading up to spring 2018, fewer than 10 students were charged per semester.

A large majority of the cases reviewed by the Honor Council in the spring were accusations of cheating. Of those, most involved unauthorized assistance or plagiarism. Six of the 46 cases consisted of stealing or lying.

Once these cases are reported, they undergo a four-step process leading up to a decision. An initial meeting with the student, in which the reporter determines if any other explanation can be found, which is followed by an investigation.

Next, a sufficient evidence panel formally assigns charges, then a judgment hearing occurs. If the student is found responsible, primary sanctions vary but can include everything from a warning to permanent dismissal.

In spring 2018, the majority of students found responsible were issued a suspension.

One part of the rise in the council’s caseload last spring had to do with a spike of 15 cases from one undergraduate department.

Sometimes a sudden increase in reports can stem from a single instance of cheating. A past case of mass reports at the graduate level involved an unauthorized answer key that was circulated throughout an entire class.

“Sometimes students make poor choices and it bleeds over into other students that use the material,” Associate Dean of Students and Director of Student Conduct Dave Gilbert said.

Even outside the unspecified department, there was a general increase in reports this past spring. One explanation is the overhaul made to the Honor Code in 2013, which was the first time it had seen major changes since 1999.

With the implementation of the updated code, the average number of cases the council saw per year increased from 36 to 40. One of its new features is the option of “early resolution,” which allows for the possibility of a more informal resolution to minor cases.

“For lower-level violations of a first-time nature, [early resolution] doesn’t require a full panel and the full process that admittedly is quite complex and sometimes time-consuming,” Gilbert said.

Another change that came with the new code is the introduction of “deferred suspension,” the sanction assigned to a third of concluded cases this past spring. This option allows students to remain on campus but does not permit them to represent the College in any official capacity.

“There was a lot of concern from administration and from council over the past few years that there’s this huge difference in the effect of a sanction between a suspension, where you’re not allowed here on campus, and a probation, which doesn’t really impact the student’s daily life,” Honor Council Chair Henry Crossman ’19 said. “So we developed deferred suspension. … This helps the student refocus on academics.”

Overall, the council hopes that the rise in cases in spring 2018 reflects increased reliance on the Honor Council, as opposed to faculty members dealing with violations on their own.

“Over the years, we’ve been able to develop a higher trust in the council’s ability to appropriately resolve cases in terms of how faculty perceive the council,” Crossman said.

In order to ensure that students are comfortable with the Honor Code, the council has a range of new initiatives planned for the semester.

These include a revamp of Orientation materials, introducing an honor “designee” in each department to help familiarize faculty with the process and a program to help re-familiarize suspended students with campus. These efforts culminate in Ethics Week this October, which will feature keynote speaker Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor with a notable role in calling attention to the clean water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

“[Edwards will] highlight in a more positive way what ethics can look like, and what it can look like on a college campus,” Crossman said.

With its new series of outreach programs, the council hopes to put a face to the Honor Code and develop understanding among the student body of how to fully prepare for their classes so that honor violations never become an issue.

“We are one of the only student-run honor councils in the country, the first in the nation,” Honor Council Vice Chair Amelia Nell ’19 said. “I think there’s a benefit in having students run that process, in that we are ensuring due process for the student and giving them every opportunity they can to prove what they want to prove and give their testimony to us. So, I think that’s just important to remember that we’re here for the students and we’re not a punitive body in that nature.”