Amid stately oaks and Gothic towers, Rhodes College students leave room doors unlocked and book bags untended, and they shoot baskets in the gym without signing out equipment. Students eat in the cafeteria without the hassle of presenting meal plan cards -- none is required. Thefts are rare, say students of this private liberal arts school of 1,400 students, where a long-honed culture of honor also permits unproctored exams and take-home tests. In the last five years, only four students have been expelled by Rhodes's student-run honor trial system for cheating, lying or stealing. "I've seen people fail a take-home test," said Mike Gonda, 22, a senior and star basketball player. "That says to me they're not cheating." At first glance, Rhodes College may not seem to have much in common with the U.S. Naval Academy, 800 miles to the northeast in Annapolis, where a 1992 cheating scandal culminated last week with the expulsion of 24 midshipmen. But both schools are relatively small liberal arts institutions with high-performing, homogeneous student bodies and long-standing honor codes -- all factors that academic observers say create the most conducive atmosphere for school honor systems. So how has Rhodes College managed to escape the mammoth cheating scandals that have hit not only the Naval Academy, but also its Army counterpart in West Point, N.Y., and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs in the last two decades? One professor who has studied college honor codes believes that the authoritarian structure and intense competitiveness of military academies may be at least partly to blame, because they foster group loyalty among students and an us-vs.-them attitude toward the military hierarchy. "The faculty and administration are so authoritarian that it splits them from the students," undermining the sense of campus community and trust that is necessary for an honor system, said Donald L. McCabe, a professor of business ethics at Rutgers State University of New Jersey-Newark. Officials at the Naval Academy agree that student competition may be a factor, but they disagree that regimentation fosters cheating. In a recent interview, Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch, outgoing superintendent of the Naval Academy, blamed the 1992 cheating incident on the academy's ever-increasing academic, athletic and professional development pressures. "We hold (midshipmen) to a higher standard," he said. "We place more demands on them than you would have at a normal school." On Thursday, Navy Secretary John H. Dalton ordered the expulsion of 24 of the 134 midshipmen originally accused of cheating or of lying to investigators about an electrical engineering exam that was stolen and distributed to students before it was given in December 1992. An additional 64 midshipmen received punishments short of expulsion; 38 were exonerated; eight left the academy for other reasons. The cheating incident, the largest in the academy's 149-year history, has placed a harsh spotlight on academic integrity and student honor systems -- the formal codes of conduct that generally bar lying, cheating and stealing. In recent years, the codes, which were phased out at many schools in the 1970s, have been revived at some colleges and established for the first time at others. The 35,000-student University of Maryland at College Park inaugurated an honor system in 1990. Students at the 17,600-student University of Virginia in Charlottesville voted recently to retain its 152-year old system, the oldest in the country and one of the few that automatically expels students found guilty of lying, cheating or stealing. Similar codes now exist in some form at an estimated 100 colleges nationwide, a phenomenon that some say reflects a heightened concern about student ethics. In 1991, McCabe conducted a widely publicized student survey that concluded cheating in college was fairly widespread. In the survey, completed anonymously by 6,096 undergraduates at 31 academically elite schools, 67 percent of students admitted cheating at least once in college. But students at schools with honor codes appear to cheat less, McCabe's study found. Twenty percent of students at schools without codes admitted cheating more than three times on tests. Only 5 percent of students at schools with codes admitted cheating that often. Rhodes professors say that cheating, while it certainly occurs, is relatively uncommon on their tranquil urban campus. What is their proof? "I see it in the continuity and lack of anomalous behavior of my students," said physics professor Robert M. MacQueen. He said he has seen no "bumbling student who suddenly writes a brilliant essay" and no group of students bunched together in an exam room who produce "similarly incorrect answers." Rhodes economics professor Dee Birnbaum said she allowed a student working in her office to gather research material on the same computer that contained easily accessible questions on a semester exam. "I never worried that she was going into the exam," Birnbaum said. The student later took the exam, Birnbaum said, and the results showed no numerical "spike" or other unexpected inflation in her grade. McCabe defines honor system schools generally as those that have some combination of unproctored exams, a formal "no-cheat" pledge, an obligation or expectation that students report cheating by others and a "peer judicial review" or student trial process for accused cheaters. Rhodes College has all those components. The Naval Academy has some, including its venerable Honor Concept -- that midshipmen "do not lie, cheat or steal." The academy gives students the option of "counseling" violators privately or turning them in. But its professors generally proctor exams, a policy that McCabe says undermines campus trust. Also, McCabe said, the unique hierarchy and control mechanisms of the academy, while necessary in any military institution, may create a divisive atmosphere that discourages student acceptance of the Honor Concept. Lynch countered that the academy's unusually heavy demands compel some midshipmen to cheat out of fear of failing and expulsion. The academy, for example, requires its 4,100 midshipmen to complete 145 to 150 credit hours in four years; other schools, including Rhodes, typically require no more than 120 hours. Competition is keen for class ranking. Among the academy's 1,181 incoming plebes last year, 87 percent scored better than 600 on their math SATs and 39 percent exceeded 600 on their verbal SATs. Incoming freshmen at Rhodes have combined scores that average about 1,200. To offset the pressures, Lynch said he has launched a mentoring program for students that involves teachers, coaches and administrators. The aim is to establish support for midshipmen and create a stronger sense of community and a disincentive to cheat, while balancing all that against the academy's traditional chain of command and "professional respect" for the institution. That balance of intimacy and respect is deeply ingrained at Rhodes, said James H. Daughdrill, Rhodes's president for 21 years. "This is a very close-knit community," he said. "We don't go by Social Security numbers." Of the honor system components, the least effective is the one that asks students to turn in their peers. McCabe and others said a substantial amount of cheating goes unreported because that obligation conflicts with the negative image of the "snitch." "Some students do look the other way ... because of fear of social ostracism. ... There is a real pressure to fit in," said Rhodes's Birnbaum. "It can be hard, especially among friends," said Kimbrelle Barbosa, 20, a Rhodes junior. In his 1991 survey, McCabe found that just half of students at honor code schools were willing to turn in a fellow student; fewer than 1 in 10 said they would turn in a close friend. At schools without honor codes, the figures were even lower: Just 1 in 10 would report another student; fewer than 1 in 20 would tell on a friend. McCabe said that for an honor system to work, students must be constantly reminded of its tenets so it becomes "internalized" as a part of their daily lives. This is done at both Rhodes and the Naval Academy with lectures, handbooks and at freshman orientation. At Rhodes, the student pledge of honesty is posted in most classrooms, stamped on examination "blue books" and appears in an official pledge book signed by incoming freshmen. "I remember being very struck by the ritual of signing the pledge book," said Julie Meiman, 22, a senior. "... It's like entering a contract. ... I remember thinking, 'I hope I don't have any problem with this,' and reading it over and over." "People rise to expectations," said Katherine Richardson, Rhodes assistant dean for academic affairs. " ... People will be good when they are expected to be."

PHOTO, IN FIVE YEARS, RHODES COLLEGE IN MEMPHIS HAS EXPELLED ONLY FOUR STUDENTS FOR HONOR SYSTEM VIOLATIONS. JOHN L. FOCHT FOR TWP