UVA prides itself on its honor system, whose hearings resolve accusations of lying, cheating, and stealing. In theory, they imitate civil trials. Only the fair search for truth in such a system maintains the credibility of campus justice. History teaches that procedural protections and fundamental fairness must be thought about impartially and put into place before crises. This is vitally important for America’s colleges and universities, where “justice” increasingly means “conviction.” UVA’s system had been flawed, but it almost became a reckless engine of injustice at a crucial juncture.
In early May 2001, UVA experienced a crisis over charges of widespread cheating. Professor of Physics Louis A. Bloomfield, teaching a course on “How Things Work,” applied his own software program-designed to detect plagiarism-to the students in his class, and brought honor committee charges of academic dishonesty against 122 students before the UVA honors committee (almost twice as many charges as had been filed against all UVA students during the prior two years). Within a week, the scandal made national headlines. Students at UVA will now learn whether or not their system allows for the fair hearing and disposition of such charges.
Students increasingly had been complaining about disciplinary unfairness, and they brought lawsuits, last year alone, that sought damages in excess of $13 million. UVA faced a suit by a student whose degree was revoked eight years after he graduated, in a trial that was held without him present. In response to these complaints and to widespread criticism, UVA proposed several major revisions of University procedures.
Fortunately for UVA, students this year rejected these changes, deciding that the proposals would transform a flawed system into something yet worse-kangaroo courts in which no one could have any faith. One change would have stripped juries of their traditional right to decide the “seriousness” of a charge of cheating. A second would have both reduced the number of jurors and lowered the percentage of votes necessary for conviction. Thus, where a defendant in a Virginia state court could only be convicted of even petty crimes by a unanimous vote, a UVA student could be expelled or have his or her degree revoked by a six-to-three decision. The third and final change would have terminated trial by peers at UVA, ending the practice of randomly selected juries and substituting special juries composed either entirely or in large part of UVA’s honor committee, twenty-two students who currently oversee the system. The history of witchcraft trials, McCarthyism, and Courts of Star Chamber teaches that justice and the search for truth suffer under tribunals that are assigned special moral missions.
On March 1, 2001, in a referendum marked by exceptionally high voter turnout, students protected their honor code and their most basic rights by rejecting a wholesale weakening of existing procedural protections. In December 2000, prior to the vote, Erich Wasserman, a program officer at FIRE, had drawn national attention to the dangers at UVA in a detailed criticism of the proposed changes that was published in The Washington Post. In this opinion-editorial and in a crucial column written for UVA’s student newspaper just days before the vote, Wasserman warned that the proposed changes would transform this public university’s disciplinary system into an expulsion factory.
Wasserman observed, after the referendum, “It was not only a welcome affirmation of due process, and a rare instance of students thinking deeply about issues of fairness, but, in the light of the current charges, it was absolutely essential to students’ ability to have faith in the process that will deal with the current charges. Students must be presumed innocent until a fair and impartial hearing proves them otherwise. The students protected the honor system from new dangers when it mattered most. Without their vote, UVA would be facing not simply a difficult, but, indeed, an impossible situation now.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a nonprofit educational foundation. FIRE unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of due process, individual rights, freedom of expression, the rights of conscience, and religious liberty on our campuses.