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.