University of Virginia students, faculty and school officials wrestled with the prickly issue of racial disparity in the school's Honor Code in a forum tonight, debating the underlying cause and what can or should be done.

The forum, part of "Honor Awareness Day" on campus, was to solicit public comment on key issues facing the 157-year-old honor system, which requires the expulsion of students who violate a mandatory pledge not to lie, cheat or steal. The forum touched on a variety of issues, including alternatives to the sole punishment of expulsion.

But questions about why greater numbers of minorities are brought up on honor violations drew the most passionate responses from panelists and audience.

"I think when you have . . . a disproportionate number of [minority] students being accused, I don't think you have to be a rocket scientist to see something is amiss," M. Rick Turner, dean of African American affairs, told the crowd of about 100.

Concerns that the student-run system unduly scrutinizes minorities date to at least the mid-1980s. For the first time this year, the Honor Committee gathered and published comprehensive figures on 69 honor cases in the 1998-99 school year. The figures show that minority students were accused and expelled at rates disproportionate to their enrollment. Of the university's 18,463 students, 12,562--68 percent--are white.

Sixty-three percent of those expelled after an honor trial last year were black, Asian or Hispanic. Of those making accusations, 97 percent were white. A long-held theory on campus, and one discussed tonight, is that the higher rate turns on "spotlighting"--that on campus, minorities and athletes receive extra scrutiny because their appearance causes them to stand out.

"It's hard for me to believe that faculty or teaching assistants are singling out African American students or athletes for this kind of treatment," said Henry Valentine II, a member of the university's governing Board of Visitors who participated in the discussion. "If what Dean Turner is saying is true, we probably ought to cancel the system. This is my opinion. I think that's a terrible indictment."

Honor Committee Chairman Hunter Ferguson said he is committed to tackling the issue of disparity and the allegations of discrimination. "Real or imagined, this perception exists," he said. Many who spoke noted that the Honor Committee does not initiate cases but rather investigates allegations.

Bobby Le, representing the school's Asian Student Union, said that assuming there is no bias within the system, "there is still a problem of having an honor system that is enforced disproportionately."

Spotlighting, he said, is real, and it "is almost an invisible issue to the public."

Brandi Colander, director of issues for the university's Black Student Alliance, said spotlighting occurs because people "are more suspicious of smaller groups."

David Gies, professor of Spanish and chairman of the faculty senate, was among several speakers who said one solution is to actively recruit minority students to participate within the Honor Committee. "Spotlight them, if you will" for involvement, Gies said. The 21-member committee includes three minorities this year.

Ferguson said he has found that minority students are reluctant to get involved and noted that one person told him the Honor Committee is perceived as the "white kids' " group. "We have to reach out to groups . . . but it is not something we can accomplish on our own," he said.

Turner said there is "a reluctance on the part of African American students" to become involved because of a distrust of the system. Turner, who advocates minority involvement, said he believes the current committee leadership is tackling the issue, but, "What's going to happen when Hunter [Ferguson] graduates?"

Turner said he aggressively advises incoming students and athletes and "anyone that appears be different" to be wary of the spotlighting effect.