Is the UNC honor court broken?

Apr. 26, 2011 12:30 am

Correction:A previous version of this article incorrectly described an Honor Code incident including professor Ralph Byrns. This article has been revised to reflect this correction. Reesenews apologizes for the error.

To hear some critics tell it, the student-run undergraduate honor court at UNC-Chapel Hill is a bogus enterprise: It’s so inefficient and unwieldy that it cheapens the integrity of faculty members and allows cheating students to get off scot-free.

To others, the court is draconian, imposing harsh penalties on students who commit minor violations, destroying their college careers.

Still others say the court is functioning well.

During a three-month investigation of the undergraduate honor court, which is the judicial body designed to hold undergraduate students accountable for misconduct, reesenews reporters encountered passionate advocates of each of these narratives.

To better understand and evaluate the honor court, reesenews obtained case statistics and survey data on instructor experiences with the system. Reesenews also conducted interviews with faculty members, students and court administrators.

The investigation revealed worrisome trends:

-In a campus survey, UNC-CH instructors said that in more than 50 percent of cheating incidents, they had chosen not to report students to the honor court, even though they are required to do so by the UNC honor code.

-Many surveyed instructors said they had declined to report cheating students to the honor court because the process took too much time or was too complicated. Others said they preferred to handle the incident themselves, in some cases because they felt the honor court would fail to convict students. “I think the honor court is a joke and do not want to waste my time with it,” one instructor wrote.

-University officials said the honor court does not maintain records of conviction rates for academic misconduct, making it difficult for anyone to evaluate how the system responds to cheating incidents.

Yet the reesenews investigation also found evidence to support the notion of a functioning, capable honor court. Despite significant imperfections, the court manages to mete out a fair brand of justice.

From “stealing professors’ horses” to a student-run court

From the initial charge to the determination of sanctions, the undergraduate honor court at UNC is entirely student-run.

But in the university’s early years, faculty members presided over matters of student misconduct. They handed out expulsions for “arson, drunkenness, throwing rocks at tutors, stealing professors’ horses, and even dueling,” according to Kemp Battle’s “History of the University of North Carolina.”

That changed in 1974, when students began evaluating charges and assigning sanctions to their peers.

Today, the honor system is divided into three branches. The student attorney general’s office assigns counsel to both accusers and defendants and determines the specific charge after a complaint is received.

The honor system outreach is the public relations branch of the system, and it attempts to inform a wider student and faculty audience about the honor code.

The honor court, the third branch, hears cases of academic violations and student misconduct, and it is responsible for returning a verdict and imposing sanctions. Academic violations include plagiarism, cheating and other offenses related to academic life. “Conduct” violations include behavior-related misconduct, such as drug offenses.

Travis McElveen, a senior majoring in economics and history, is the chair of the undergraduate honor court. In an interview with reesenews, he outlined the process by which a case moves through the judicial system.

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The harsh tribunal

Although the honor court is operated by students, its members sometimes impose harsh sanctions on their peers.

“The sanction of suspension for a semester for two plagiarized paragraphs was excessive,” one faculty respondent wrote in a recent survey, “and went beyond what I had sought.”

Another faculty member called earlier sanctions “draconian.”

“I believe the minimal sanctions are too harsh for what I viewed as a minor offense,” another wrote. “I do not believe suspension or failure of the course is fair.”

Allison Ramer, a former UNC student, told reesenews that an instructor accused her of cheating on a homework assignment in 2010. Six months passed between the accusation and her hearing, in which she was convicted. As a result, she failed the course and received a one-semester suspension. The combination of circumstances disheartened her, and she dropped out of school.

The ill-treated professor

But some professors report instances of egregious academic violations in which students are acquitted or escape with only light punishments.

In October 2008, Jay Smith, a professor of French history, reported a student to the honor court for committing four instances of plagiarism in a single paper.

In January 2009, he heard from his appointed investigative counsel, a student whose role is equivalent to that of a prosecuting attorney. Thus began an ill-fated relationship that culminated Jan. 25, when Smith found his investigative counsel desperately copying materials at the Student and Academic Services Buildings only minutes before the hearing.

When Smith was called to testify, he was dismayed to find that the investigative counsel had neglected to bring evidence of three of the four plagiarism charges against the student. Smith had submitted this evidence to the office of the student attorney general in October 2008 and was assured in December that the materials had been received. Because of this error, the court held that the three charges could not be admitted.

During cross-examination, a defense representative asked if Smith was aware that his student suffered from a “severe case of ADHD.” This salvo infuriated the professor.

“Learning disabilities do not cause plagiarism, as far as I know,” he wrote in a letter of complaint to Dean of Students Jonathan Sauls, who oversees the honor system.

Smith’s letter — a frustrated, semi-comic rant clocking in at just over 3,000 words — explained his dissatisfaction with the “Kafkaesque absurdities” that emerged throughout the judicial process.

The honor court convicted Smith’s student on one count of plagiarism. But in his letter, written before a final verdict was rendered, Smith said he expected that the student would escape without punishment. “I resignedly brace myself for another slap in the face,” he wrote.

On March 9, Smith received an email from Sauls. The student’s conviction had been overturned on appeal.

“The data … does not include the information you are seeking”

Just how common is a case such as the one Smith encountered, in which a student accused of academic misconduct is found innocent or has a conviction overturned on appeal?

To find out, reesenews filed a public records request with the University, seeking data on the conviction rates for academic violations during the past 10 years.

In a response to the request dated Feb. 25, 2011, Regina Stabile, the director of institutional records and reporting compliance for the university, said that under current honor system regulations, records relating to students who are found “not guilty” must be destroyed. As a result, she wrote, “Although some aggregate data was collected for previous years, it does not include the information you are seeking.”

Data on the success rate of appeals are not available either, university officials said in interviews and emails. Therefore, it is difficult to evaluate how the system responds to cheating incidents.

In response to the reesenews records request, the University did release some aggregate case data for academic and behavior violations for 2005 through spring 2010.

That data contains hints that conviction rates for academic violations are high. Although the University does not compile conviction rates for academic cases, it has maintained statistics on the number of academic sanctions issued in the past three years.

In the 2007-08 academic year, 60 of the 77 students (78 percent) charged with academic offenses were given academic sanctions, suggesting that at least that many were found guilty. In 2008-09, the court issued academic sanctions in 71 percent of cases of academic violations. In 2009-10, the rate rose to 76 percent.

The data also suggest that the court tends toward leniency in punishing academic misconduct. In many academic cases, the honor court imposed probationary sanctions that essentially served as warnings.

a deeper look at the honor court case statistics

  • In five academic years beginning in 2005, the court heard 887 cases, averaging 80 cases per spring semester, 69 cases per fall semester and 28 cases per summer.
  • Of these 887 cases, 479 (54 percent) were academic cases. The rest were conduct cases, with DUI and drug offenses representing the most frequent charges.
  • The majority of academic cases involved plagiarism charges (308 cases, or 64 percent), while “unauthorized use of notes” accounted for 103 cases, or 22 percent.
  • In these years, most students charged with an academic offense pleaded guilty. Overall, an average of 69 percent of students entered guilty pleas.
  • An average of 89 percent of students charged with either academic or conduct violations were found guilty. (Data for conviction rates for academic violations alone were not available, University officials said.)
  • Many students don’t receive the most severe penalties. In the 2007-08 academic year, only 38 percent of students facing academic charges received a one-semester suspension or worse. In 2008-09, the number rose to 51 percent, but fell last year to 45 percent.
  • Every convicted student may file an appeal. But Dean of Students Jonathan Sauls said that the university does not maintain records of how frequently appeals result in overturned convictions.

“The honor court is a joke.”

Last spring, the University’s Educational Policy Committee, which consists of nine faculty members and two students, collected results from a survey it conducted to determine the depth of faculty dissatisfaction with the honor court. Professors, lecturers and teaching assistants responded to the survey. The committee received responses from 577 people who have taught a course at UNC.

The results, which were obtained by reesenews, suggest that most respondents are satisfied with the honor system. Approval rates were well above 50 percent in every category.

But some responses hinted that the system does not always work as designed. For example, 56 percent of respondents said they had observed academic dishonesty but had chosen not to report it.

The University honor code requires instructors to report cases of suspected academic dishonesty to the honor system. According to the University’s instrument of student judicial governance, instructors should “refrain from taking unilateral punitive action as to a student rather than reporting conduct in suspected violation of the honor code.”

Other responses suggest that a passionate minority of faculty members feel that the honor system is flawed.

One instructor described a case in which a student doctored a scantron grade report: “The student gave a flimsy excuse (her boyfriend did it, and she didn’t know, and had forgotten her grade so honestly thought there was a mistake),” the instructor wrote. “The honor court found in favor of the student. Given this experience, I think the honor court is a joke.”

“In one semester,” another instructor wrote, “the honor court dismissed charges of plagiarism when the student claimed they did not know what plagiarism was.”

a deeper look at the faculty survey results

  • When asked how many times they had noticed academic dishonesty among students, 135 of 559 respondents to that question (24 percent) answered “never.” Forty-six percent had noticed it once or twice, and 30 percent noticed it three times or more.
  • Many instances of cheating went unreported. Of the 424 respondents who noticed at least one instance of academic misconduct, 239 never reported a single allegation to the honor system — a 56 percent majority.
  • Only 20 percent of respondents would “definitely” refer a case of plagiarism to the honor system if they noticed it in the future. Twenty-nine percent said they would “probably” turn to the honor system, 33 percent “might,” 15 percent “probably wouldn’t,” and 3 percent said they “definitely wouldn’t.”
  • When asked for reasons why they might not refer a case to the honor system, 40 percent cited time concerns, 36 percent said they preferred to handle the problem themselves, and 30 percent said they thought the process was too complicated. (This question invited respondents to “check all that apply,” resulting in percentages exceeding 100).
  • Sixty-three percent of respondents said that most of the cases they brought before the honor court ended with guilty verdicts. Fourteen percent said the verdicts were mixed. Respondents “mostly agreed” with the verdict 61 percent of the time.
  • In terms of final sanctions, 64 percent of respondents found that they were generally appropriate.
  • Seventy-six percent of respondents felt that the honor court behaved with appropriate seriousness in their experience, while 78 percent felt they were treated appropriately by the court on a personal level.
  • Seventy-two percent of respondents agreed with the practice of having students run the honor system. The same percentage believed that the honor system “is an appropriate means for handling matters of plagiarism and academic dishonesty.”
  • Only 46 percent of respondents felt they should be allowed to remain in the room for an entire hearing, while only 25 percent felt they should be allowed to question students during the hearing. Forty-four percent felt they should be involved in the deliberation process.
  • On the remaining questions, 60 to 75 percent of respondents indicated that they were satisfied with the honor court.

Ideas for reform

In interviews, online postings and in letters, faculty members and administrators have expressed ideas for reforming the honor court. Reesenews compiled excerpts from those sources to illustrate the range of the debate. Here, the main ideas for reforming the honor system are discussed by Smith, the history professor; Andrew Perrin, a professor of sociology; Sauls, the dean of students; and McElveen, the student chair of the honor system.

Should students be presumed guilty?

Perrin: “When a faculty member accuses a student of plagiarism or cheating, the presumption ought to be that that student is guilty. Obviously, students should have the opportunity to mount a defense. But this is not a behavior similar to a crime, faculty are not prosecutors, and nobody wants to be out to get a student for cheating.”

Smith: “In cases of suspected academic dishonesty — the nature, signs and occasions for which are known best by the accusing faculty — the presumption should be ‘guilty until proven innocent.’ After all, knowledge about the nature of honest intellectual work and the ways in which dishonesty can creep into the enterprise, is part of the ‘mystery’ of the professors’ guild.”

Sauls: “I respectfully and stridently disagree with the notion that there should be a presumption of guilt. It is a fundamental belief of mine and also a component of jurisprudence of any sort that the burden should be on those who want to visit the sanction to be able to prove that the violation occurred. And it has not been my experience that faculty members only report violations supported by overwhelming mountains of evidence.”

Sauls said that in some cases, faculty members misinterpret the honor code.

“To assume that every faculty member has the same definition of plagiarism is to think erroneously,” he said. “For some of them, it means that if I say to cite an MLA form, and you cite in a different form, that’s misconduct. I might look at that and say, that really seems to be more of a grading issue.”

He said it’s common for young professors or teaching assistants to submit even minor citation errors to the honor court in the belief that it’s not their place to determine if the mistake was a mere oversight. The cases of greatest difficulty come not in clear-cut cases of plagiarism, but rather when the balance between reckless and accidental citation errors must be determined.

Should students run the honor system?

Smith: “Why is there this powerful, enduring commitment to a student-run system? Why must students have autonomy in this matter? That’s a burning question for me. I mean, why is there resistance to shared responsibility between students and faculty? Or students and faculty and administration? Why must students remain in charge? Why do so many people believe that?”

Perrin: In a 2008 post online , Perrin wrote: “The judging is exclusively in the hands of undergraduate students, who, frankly, don’t grasp what’s so breathtakingly wrong about cheating,” he wrote. “These students continue to go to school with the people they’re judging, which introduces some perverse incentives.” (In a recent interview, Perrin said that he now believes the honor system should be run by students.)

Sauls: “I find that students devote innumerable hours to this. These are not folks who are just rolling by for an hour a week. These are folks who make a significant investment. Some of these hearings last four, five, six hours, and they’re giving of all of their time to do that.”

Sauls said that because of the large case volume the honor court must process, any faculty member who got involved in the system would need to commit a significant amount of time.

“I’m always looking to recruit, for example, faculty members to sit at appeals, and I can’t round up those numbers,” he said.

Is the court’s formality a hindrance to real justice?

Smith: “End the pseudo-judicial character of the honor hearing. Many students evidently enjoy the opportunity to dress in business attire and play the role of attorney, but the format of a judicial proceeding is inappropriate to the decision-making process called for in cases of academic dishonesty. The legalistic posturing to which the procedure gives rise inevitably leads to Kafkaesque absurdities — e.g., excluding some or all of the critical evidence, exhaustive searches for liberating technicalities, the posing of inappropriate ‘gotcha’ questions. Finally, this paradigm creates an artificial and stilted atmosphere seemingly designed to prevent free-flowing, candid, and probing discussion.”

Perrin: “The problem is that the honor court is organized as if it’s a trial court. And trial courts are doing different things for different reasons. And this, for the academic side of things, ought to be organized to preserve academic values and quality, not to look like a criminal court.”

Sauls: “There are certainly cases that scream for informality. It’d be simple to just sit in a room and talk, but there are cases where there’s so much disagreement and disparity between accounts that you really want the formality of a process that’s equitable and the same from case to case. So we’re not reinventing the wheel, and you, coming along, don’t get a different measure of due process than the student before or after you.”

Do cases take too long to reach a verdict?

The length of the process is a common pet peeve for faculty members who have filed complaints. “It takes FOREVER,” Perrin wrote.

Others echoed his sentiments in the faculty survey. “I have deep concerns about the length of the time interval from when a case is reported until when the student has a hearing,” one instructor complained. “Something has to be done about the backlog.”

Sauls said he acknowledges the need for greater efficiency. He said he implemented a small change that saved significant time and paperwork for the honor system. Previously, students were allowed only five days to initiate an appeal after the hearing. But they often did not receive a copy of the court’s rationale until near the end of that five days. So many of them filed appeals without knowing the court’s reasoning for the conviction. Sauls changed the rule to allow students to appeal five days after receiving the rationale.

Not only was this fairer to students, Sauls said, but to his surprise, it also reduced the number of appeals. When students had the rationale in front of them and had an opportunity to speak with Sauls, they were more likely to understand the guilty verdict and less likely to appeal.

McElveen points to the record number of cases the court heard last semester (91) as a sign that improvements are being made and faculty are investing more of their trust in the system.

“That’s not to say that we’re celebrating an increased number of nefarious activities on campus,” he said. “It’s just that we’re trying to be the most efficient and professional organization here on campus.”

Staff editorial: Taking the middle ground on the Honor Court

The honor system can be a maddeningly inefficient machine. The fact that UNC-Chapel Hill does not maintain records of conviction rates for academic cases confirms the problem. The sometimes lengthy delay between accusation and hearing is unacceptable, and the sheer numbers of faculty who witnessed cases of academic misconduct without reporting it is worrisome. We encountered repeated stories of professors unilaterally assigning students an F when they saw an instance of misconduct in order to avoid dealing with the honor system.

As Andrew Perrin, a UNC-CH professor of sociology, points out, this practice allows for no distinction between simple poor performance and cheating, which is a crime against the University. For casting light on these important issues, Perrin and Jay Smith, a history professor, should be applauded.

On the other hand, the honor system deserves recognition for recent improvements that have allowed for more hearings and fewer appeals. While University outreach requires further development, and the battle for efficiency must be waged in an ongoing fashion, it’s possible that the imperfect system is still the best fit for UNC.

In an interview, Jonathan Sauls, the dean of students, referred to a quote by Benjamin Franklin from his speech at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. After expressing his reservations about the document that founded the nation, Franklin exhorted his peers to sign it anyway.

“On the whole,” he said, “I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”

In other words, it’s the best we’ve got.

Editor’s note: This story was reported by Emily Kennard, Shane Ryan, and Daniel Sircar. The graphics were produced by Kristen Long.

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