The student body president at Washington and Lee University, Steele Burrow, has a heavy responsibility. He and a dozen other students on the Executive Committee at the school in Lexington, Va., sit in judgment of peers who have been accused of lying, cheating or stealing.
There have been two closed hearings since April, Burrow said, resulting in verdicts of guilty and not guilty. Two students withdrew from the school in that time before a hearing was held. And there are two investigations ongoing.
“It definitely keeps us busy,” Burrow said. A senior from Dallas, Burrow, 21, is studying global politics.
And yet this strict apparatus of enforcement produces a surprisingly relaxed environment on campus. “There really is an expectation and a reality that you won’t cheat,” Burrow said. “It seems too good to be true,” he acknowledged. But it is, by all accounts here, true. Burrow calls the environment of trust “liberating.” It’s worth noting that there is no mandatory requirement for a student to report an offense if he or she believes one has occurred. Burrow said that also reduces tensions.
Even veteran professors, who proctored exams in jobs at other colleges before coming here, part of an endless chase to catch cheaters, say the honor system at Washington and Lee is the real deal.
It may have something to do with size. There are only 2,200 students at this selective private liberal arts university. Classes are small. Professors and students know each other.
Culture certainly plays a role. The school openly stresses honor from day one. “We have a lot of conversations on this campus,” said W&L President Kenneth P. Ruscio, “about what does it mean to cheat? What does it mean to lie? What does it mean to steal? It gives students a vocabulary, a context.”
Margaret McClintock, 20, a sophomore from Mississippi, said the honor system is well-advertised to applicants. “It’s in all the brochures,” she said. “During orientation week, it’s one of the first things they talk about.”
Robert Strong, the interim provost and a professor of politics, put it this way: “Grandmothers don’t ‘die’ at Washington and Lee.” By this, he meant students don’t make up stories about the sudden death of a grandmother in order to get an extra day or two to complete an assignment--a ruse that Strong said is known among faculty at universities everywhere.
“If a Washington and Lee student tells me that a grandmother is dead, then the grandmother really is dead,” Strong said.
As a postcript, it is worth noting that plenty of other schools put honor front and center. The Virginia Military Institute, next door to W&L, has a strict honor code. The University of Virginia’s student-run honor system is well known. So is the College of William and Mary’s. There are honor systems or codes at Princeton, Rice and numerous other schools—though the practice is still somewhat limited in higher education. I also learned of a custom of self-scheduled finals at Haverford College, similar to the practice at Washington and Lee in which students choose when they want to take final exams.
“You take [the test] when and where you are ready to take it,” said Haverford spokesman Chris Mills. “We’ve been doing it for decades. The logic is, this enables you to have a more effective exam period. You’re able to manage the process. . . It’s just better for everybody.”