The message couldn't have been more blunt. On a recent day, M. Rick Turner, dean of African American affairs at the University of Virginia, told a group of incoming football players to be wary of the school's honor code.
Don't sit together, he told the group. Don't sit at the back of class. Don't wear your cap backward. Don't give anyone a chance to claim your behavior looks suspicious or unusual.
"I said, 'You are taking a big chance with all your gear on. You are big, you are black, and everyone knows you are a football player,' " recalled Turner. "I cringe every time I have to say this to students, because I know what's going through these 17-year-old minds: 'Why does he have to tell us that?' "
Turner said he feels obliged to because of bias he sees playing out in the school's honor system, which requires all students to pledge not to lie, cheat or steal and punishes violators with expulsion. Comprehensive figures publicized for the first time this year back up his long-term observations: Minority students were accused and were expelled for honor violations last year at rates disproportionate to their presence on campus.
Sixty-three percent of those expelled after an honor trial last year were black, Asian or Hispanic on a campus that is 68 percent white, according to records from the Honor Committee, which enforces the code's tenets.
Of those who accused students of violating the code in the 1998-1999 school year, 97 percent were white. "If that is not telling of a system that is biased and needs monitoring, nothing else can tell you that," Turner said.
The 157-year-old honor code, intended to foster a community of trust, is as much a part of the university fabric as its social clubs or prized dorm rooms on the campus Lawn. "It contributes to a civility of student society here that doesn't exist in a lot of places," said John Syer, executive director of the university Alumni Association.
But the student-run system has come under criticism for racial disparity and, in cases involving both white and minority students, for proceedings seen as capricious and as lacking due process.
The committee in recent years has pursued charges in disputes over an $8 law book and a $10 dance ticket. It has moved to revoke a degree six years after graduation. It has advocated calling banks to inquire about a student's finances and has hired private eyes to find the accused.
Increasingly, its decisions are being challenged.
"We have spent over the last decade an inordinate amount of time on Honor Committee issues because of filed or threatened litigation," said Terence P. Ross, a member of the Board of Visitors, the state-appointed board of trustees.
"The breakdown on the part of the Honor Committee following its own rules and regulations has been pretty egregious," said Henry Valentine II, a board of visitors member and alumnus.
In response to the board's concerns about lawsuits, timeliness and students' rights, the Honor Committee is conducting what it calls a "constitutional review" of key aspects of the system. The board also has provided the Honor Committee access to legal advice.
To address race-related issues, the committee plans to meet with campus minority groups and to recruit minorities to participate in the Honor Committee's work, said the committee's chairman, Hunter Ferguson, 21, of Newport News.
Stephanie Hsu, 20, president of the Asian Student Union at U-Va. and a former Honor Committee staff member, found the disproportionate number of Asian students in the recent data "alarming."
But Ferguson said using one year's statistics--of cases involving 69 students--to draw a conclusion about racial bias is wrong. "I don't think the numbers show anything . . . the sample size is so small," Ferguson said. He insists there are no biases in the system or, as far as he knows, among committee members, "yet we are deeply concerned about the perception."
The committee works behind closed doors, without oversight from the administration. Students set the rules, investigate allegations, hear cases and deliver verdicts that either clear or expel the accused. The all-or-nothing approach, which students have backed in campus referenda, is meant to underscore the seriousness of honor violations.
Assessing the committee's performance from the outside is difficult. Files for exonerated students are shredded. Names of the guilty are locked in cabinets. Accused students can ask for a public hearing and discuss their cases, but anyone else in a case who talks risks prosecution for violating a student's privacy.
"It's a black box," said Thomas Ambrosio, 28, of Freehold, N.J., who was on the committee from 1997-1998 and is working on a doctoral degree at Virginia.
Last year's numbers were made public as part of the settlement of a bias complaint filed with the federal education department's Office of Civil Rights. Details about individual cases, involving both minority and white students, were gleaned from lawsuits, interviews and internal documents obtained by The Washington Post.
Of the university's 18,463 students, including nearly 4,600 from Northern Virginia, 12,562 are white. The most common theory as to why minorities are accused at a higher rate turns on what has come to be known on campus as "spotlighting," a theory that groups whose appearance causes them to stand out, such as minorities and athletes, get extra scrutiny.
"Five black students in a group are going to be watched and scrutinized more than the white ones," said Kim Warden, 26, a 1998 law school graduate and Honor Committee member from 1996-97. "When there are identical tests, the implication is that if they are white students, they studied together, and if they are black students, they cheated."
Allegations of bias in the honor system have arisen anecdotally and sporadically since the mid-1980s. "I believe the problem has been flagged for 14 years," said board of visitors member Ross. "I don't believe that the board and administration have taken the issue seriously until the last couple of years."
Black students were accused of violating the code in 1987 at a rate three times their representation on campus, the then-Honor Committee chairman acknowledged at the time in a letter. His letter to the university president was in response to concerns raised by black students. An outside consultant who reviewed the system in 1991 at the university's request described the spotlighting phenomenon as "a consequence of factors in the larger U-Va. community and not the design and procedures of the honor system."
"Because of miseducation in our society, many whites feel like blacks are dishonest," said Turner, the dean of African American affairs. "All that starts at the dinner table, at the breakfast table. It comes to the university."
Carlos Brown, a 1999 law school graduate and former university student council president, said that because he is black, he went out of his way for seven years to avoid unwarranted scrutiny during exams. "I love the university . . . but throughout undergraduate and through law school, I never felt comfortable and safe, even though I was doing nothing wrong," said Brown, 25, of Chesapeake, Va.
"When I talk to African American parents around the country, there is concern about sending students to the university," because of fears "they would be put out without due process," said Pat Broussard, outgoing president of the African American Parents Advisory Association at U-Va.
University President John T. Casteen III declined several requests for an interview about the honor system through a university spokesperson, who said his schedule was too busy. However, in written responses to questions, Casteen said the disparate numbers "continue to show a possible spotlighting effect." He said that the data should provoke concern about "bias of perception" but that they represent something beyond the Honor Committee's control.
"Spotlighting makes minority students more visible, especially to nonminority people; that's true here and throughout American education," Casteen said. If students dread aspects of the honor code, the remedy is not more fear but an "an assertion of ownership."
"I urge students to get involved in systems that they fear or distrust and to take them over with the intention of making them work right," Casteen said.
Last year, of those who brought honor charges, 23 were faculty, 10 were teaching assistants, 23 were students, one was an administrator and six were from the community.
David Gies, professor of Spanish and chairman of the faculty senate, said spotlighting is merely "supposition." But, "it's a healthy process to look into it, because bias and racism or unfairness have no place in any organization."
About 100 public universities nationally have traditional honor systems--with strict standards and run primarily by students--said Don McCabe, professor of management at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. Of those, U-Va. and Virginia Military Institute may be the only ones that expel violators for a first offense, said McCabe, who studies academic integrity.
"Initially, parents love it. Who can say anything against honor?" said William Harmon, U-Va's vice president for student affairs. "When . . . his or her student is caught up in the system, then it becomes this evil empire."
The University of Virginia also has a student-run Judiciary Committee, which investigates allegations of drunkenness, vandalism, assault and other potentially criminal acts. The two committees operate independently, and accusers decide where to bring allegations. The Judiciary Committee can choose from a broad range of penalties, so it is possible a student found guilty of a potential criminal act could receive a lighter penalty on campus--often probation or community service--than one convicted of an honor violation.
The makeup of the Honor Committee changes every year. The 21 members are elected by students from each school of the university. Students apply to the committee to be among a volunteer support staff of about 200 who work as investigators, prosecutors, advisers and defense representatives, and as liaisons to the community.
Of the committee's current members, one is African American and two are Asian. Minority participation among the staff is limited, several former committee members said.
"I hear a lot of people saying the honor system or the Honor Committee is racist," said Cordel L. Faulk, 23, of Virginia Beach, a law student and the only black member of the current Honor Committee. "We can only deal with the cases we have been given."
An alleged procedural lapse and a racial disparity claim are part of a lawsuit filed by a former student, Jonathan Cobb, now 24.
A cheating allegation brought against Cobb by a professor wasn't investigated for six months, according to documents filed with his suit. But Honor Committee handbooks say that after investigators are assigned to a case, it should take no more than two weeks before the allegation is either formalized or dropped. Cobb, who maintained he had not cheated on an exam, was expelled on the eve of finals in December 1997. He was denied another hearing before the committee, although it acknowledged there were "irregularities in the adjudication."
A federal judge said Cobb's lawsuit could proceed based on due process problems allegedly created by the time lag and on an equal protection complaint that "similarly situated individuals of a different race were not prosecuted." Cobb is black.
The university denied the allegations in the suit. Cobb now attends the University of Pittsburgh near his home town, but the experience left his family bitter. "If you destroy one child unnecessarily, what kind of honor do you have?" said his mother, Annette Cobb.
A case over an $8 law book took a year to resolve. In it, two students accused a law student of taking a book from atop a locker and trying to sell it. The accusers said they'd left the book there as a drop-off while they shared it and filed an honor case two days before graduation in 1996, said Warden, who helped represent the accused student. The allegation jeopardized the student's law degree, his license and the job he'd taken in California.
The accused law student, who said he believed the book had been abandoned, was cleared after a year but not before his family had taken a second mortgage to cover flights from California to Charlottesville for hearings and the cost of a lawyer to help in the case, according to Warden.
A watershed challenge to the honor system came in 1994 when the Board of Visitors intervened in the case of expelled student Christopher Leggett. Leggett won a retrial and received payments totaling $44,000 to cover his legal fees and expenses after the university found his case for cheating was mishandled.
Leggett, who insisted he did not cheat, contended he was denied the opportunity to present expert testimony and was given an inexperienced student defender. Leggett, originally of Vienna, was found not guilty at retrial and invited back to the university. By then, he had transferred to Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, N.C., from which he graduated.
Patricia Werhane, professor of business at the university, called the system "horribly messy" but said she is convinced it curbs cheating. She has brought one cheating case to the committee, which was dropped when the student sought a psychological review.
The committee should be more prompt in processing an allegation, she said. But overall, Werhane said, "it's astonishing the work" the committee members do "and how deeply they go into and how carefully they research the accused student's perspective."
Alex Littlefield opted for a public hearing because he found the charges against him "ridiculous." Littlefield, now 27, faced expulsion in 1996 over a contention that rather than buy a $10 ticket, he crashed an off-campus dance, or rave, called the Super Wiggle.
"It should never have gone through," Littlefield said of his case, which took seven months to resolve before he was cleared. Despite his experience, Littlefield supports the honor system because, he said, it generally fosters trust on campus.
"If you cannot construct a community where lying, cheating and stealing are regarded as unacceptable, then our hopes for the broader society are beyond a possibility," said Larry Sabato, university alumnus and professor of government and foreign affairs who has brought about a dozen cases before the system in his 22 years at the school.
But Sabato also articulated the struggle that proponents of the honor code face as they seek to preserve a cherished, if potentially flawed, system. "I'm very proud that we have a strong honor system, but it can be better, and it must be improved--especially on the racial front."
Washington Post staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
Against the Honor Code: Allegation to Expulsion
Students at the University of Virginia are expected to refrain from dishonorable conduct -- defined by the Honor Code as an intentional act of lying, cheating or stealing -- or face expulsion. If a student is accused of an Honor Code violation, the case against him is brought before the student-run Honor Committee, where the process operates in this way:
Honor Committee is notified of suspected Honor Code violation by a student.
Statements are taken from the suspected student; evidence is gathered.
I-Panel convenes. Accusation is formalized or dropped based on whether a violation "more likely than not" occurred.
Students formally accused may request a trial or leave the university admitting guilt.
Additional interviews are conducted and further evidence is gathered. A prosecutor is chosen from the Honor Committee; the defense counsel is appointed by the committee or chosen from campus by the student.
The jury is chosen at random from students on campus or Honor Committee members, or a mix of the two based on the defendant's choice. Defendants can choose a closed or open trial. Witnesses are called; evidence is examined. If found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant is given 48 hours to leave campus, which includes vacating student housing. The defendant's transcript is marked, "enrollment discontinued." If the student is cleared, the matter is dropped and the case file is destroyed.
An appeal can be made to other members of the Honor Committee in a hearing. The committee can deny or grant a new trial based on new evidence or for good cause.
This is the final avenue a defendant can take. A grievance is made by letter to the Honor Committee seeking reconsideration based on questions of fundamental fairness of the proceedings.
This amounts to a confession before an allegation. A student who has committed an honor infraction has the "privilege" to admit his or her guilt. In doing so, the student must accept the consequences for that action but is not forced to leave the university. The admission, however, must occur before the student gains any knowledge that someone might suspect him or her of an honor offense.
University of Virginia Demographics and the Honor Code
About 28 percent of the students brought to trial before the Honor Committee are found guilty. The following breakdown shows Honor Committee cases and their outcomes for the 1998-1999 school year.
Investigated by Honor Committee
Cases dismissed by investigators
Judged guilty at trial*
(12,562 students) 68%
55% (38 students)
(23 students) 70%
37% (7 students)
18% (6 students)
12% (4 students)
Less than 1% (44)
TOTAL (Student Body): 18,463 students
TOTAL (Investigated by Honor Committee): 69 students
TOTAL (Cases dismissed by investigators): 33 students
TOTAL (Judged guilty at trial): 19 students
*In the remaining cases, two students left admitting guilt, 11 students were found not guilty and others are awaiting trial or were removed from the process when they requested a psychological hearing.
SOURCE: University of Virginia