CHARLOTTESVILLE, OCT. 20 -- One evening last summer, Felicia Cohn, a graduate student leader at the University of Virginia, got an anonymous call from an alumnus with a clouded conscience.
As a student in the early 1980s, the man told her, he had taken money from a fund for campus social events. Could she help him, he asked, pay it back?
"He said point-blank, 'I know this is wrong, because we have an honor code, and I'm trying now to live my life that way.' "
Cohn related the telephone call today in a circle of several dozen students in the campus's Newcomb Hall. Some from Virginia, others from the University of Maryland at College Park, they gathered to talk about the meaning of honor in an academic community -- and how to help it take root. It was the first such conversation between students from U-Va., which has the nation's oldest university honor system, and from College Park, which is trying to instill one on a big, diverse campus. "One of our greatest challenges is creating a tradition," said Gary Pavela, the College Park director of judicial programs, who accompanied the students. "We do not have Thomas Jefferson. We have a turtle," he said, referring to the school's mascot, a terrapin.
For three hours, the students traded views on how to investigate cheaters, what punishment they deserve, and whether universities should regulate personal morality -- or just academic conduct. Their exchange was part of a revival of attention within higher education to the importance of honesty. Students and campus officials are rethinking how to help students become more ethical, and what is the best way to deal with those who lie, plagiarize or cheat.
At U-Va., an outside consultant this fall is studying whether the campus's honor system is fair, particularly to minority students, who are overrepresented in accusations and expulsions in proportion to their enrollment. The study, to be finished this winter, is believed to be the first outside critique of the school's controversial 148-year-old system.
College Park established an honor code this semester, giving students a greater degree of power to police themselves. The new system, seldom tried at a university as big as the 35,000-student Maryland campus, puts undergraduates in charge of investigating complaints, trying those accused of cheating and setting punishment.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Naval Academy this month released the results of the most thorough review of its "honor concept" in its four-decade history.
The study found that midshipmen lacked confidence that the honor system is just. It also concluded that midshipmen and faculty members are reluctant to report cheaters, and that both groups need to think more carefully about ethics.
Such ferment stems from a widespread belief that students do not learn well enough a pattern of ethical behavior that will carry into their professional lives. "Questions of academic integrity are one of the number one issues facing higher education right now," said Terry Szmagala, a third-year law student at U-Va.
Here, there have been scandals lately among the leaders of the honor system. In 1988, J. Brady Lum, the honor committee chairman, was accused of plagiarism in a letter he wrote to new students. He was cleared in an investigation, reprimanded by the committee's members, and retained by overwhelming support in a recall vote.
Last year, his successor, Lonnie Chafin, resigned after being convicted of assault in a fight with Charlottesville police.
And one of the honor system's central features, a single punishment of automatic expulsion for any honor violation, has been put to a referendum on campus in eight of the last 14 years.
Still, alumni and student surveys indicate the honor code remains one of U-Va.'s most enduring and popular features. Students today said it is embedded in the campus's culture.
"If we wanted to stomp out lying, cheating and stealing, we'd elect honor police," said Travis Lewis, 20, a senior marketing major who is the honor committee's chairman. "More than that, our goal is to create a community of trust."
Maryland students wondered whether the Virginia student body isn't cynical about the code of honor. And they probed the workings of the Virginia system: How often must students sign the honor pledge? How soon should an accused student be told he or she is under investigation? And shouldn't cheaters' transcripts tell the reason why they left the school?
"Say a student commits a serious act of fraud in a chemistry class," Pavela said. When the student applies to transfer to a different school, "aren't you passing your problems along?"
Most of all, the Maryland students sought advice on how to create a tradition of honor at a big, diverse university where few students live on campus.
"A lot of my friends are saying, 'Great, we have the honor system. My friends are now responsible for turning me in, and they will never do that,' " said Gerald Gottsman, a College Park undergraduate.
David Bennett, a Virginia student, said he believed that Maryland students could forge their own culture of ethics. But he cautioned that it would take work. "You may need to be honor cheerleaders for the next few years," he said.