At many colleges during finals week, students chug coffee in all-night cram sessions and worry about grueling schedules of back-to-back tests. Professors and teaching assistants circle exam rooms in an often fruitless quest to deter those tempted to cheat.
Here at Washington and Lee University, an honor system rooted in Gen. Robert E. Lee’s vision of the gentleman scholar means the campus is far more relaxed than the norm. Students choose when they want to take their finals, and faculty members leave them entirely unmonitored during the tests.
This degree of trust, experts say, is a rarity in higher education and offers a counterpoint in the national debate about academic security. Schools across the country are wrestling with questions about cellphone access in exam rooms, Internet-facilitated plagiarism and identity verification for online students. This year, Harvard University faced a widely publicized cheating scandal involving student collaboration on take-home tests.
Elements of Washington and Lee’s methods can be found elsewhere. The University of Virginia and others have well-known honor systems. Many professors choose not to proctor exams. But few schools replicate the format used here, with undergraduate final exams that are self-scheduled and unproctored. Haverford College, in Pennsylvania, has a similar testing system.
“It gives us a lot of independence and a lot of leeway,” Jackie Calicchio, 20, a third-year student from Florida, said after she returned a history test Monday afternoon at Washington and Lee’s Newcomb Hall. She dismissed any suggestion that the culture of trust might invite abuse. “I highly doubt any of my peers would take advantage of it,” Calicchio said. “None of us want to disappoint each other. If somebody cheats, it’s an insult to the entire community.”
The rule here is simple and unbending: one strike and you’re out.
Though faced with that severe punishment, students do cheat from time to time at Washington and Lee. The 2,200-student private university in the Great Valley of Virginia makes no pretense of having reached academic utopia. Every year, a few students are forced to withdraw from the school after being found guilty of lying, cheating or stealing under the student-run honor system.
This week, a notice on campus bulletin boards revealed that a student who plagiarized a biology paper had left the school. “In the student’s defense,” the public notice said, “he/she said that he/she was under an immense amount of stress from events beyond his/her control that made it difficult for him/her to think clearly.”
Donald McCabe, a professor of management at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, who has studied cheating in higher education, estimated that there are at least 25 colleges with honor codes or systems but probably fewer than 100. He said Washington and Lee’s version is known as one of the most expansive and successful.
“I would trust a Washington and Lee alum with anything I own,” McCabe said. “I’m sure there are alums that are bums, no question. But the ones I’ve met are all good” people.
The university, which traces its history to the founding of a classical academy here in 1749, was named for George Washington after the nation’s first president endowed it in 1796 with a $20,000 gift of stock.
Lee, who was president of the college after the Civil War ended in 1865 until his death in 1870, is credited with articulating a statement on honor that still resonates.
“Young gentleman, we have no printed rules here,” Lee told a student named Wallace E. Colyar in 1866. “We have but one rule, and that is that every student must be a gentleman.”
Officials point to a cheating scandal in 1954 as a turning point for the university. Two football players were discovered that year to have cheated on a geology quiz. They then “blew the whistle on others,” according to a 1998 alumni magazine article, revealing that some fellow students had access to master keys to professors’ offices and stole and duplicated quizzes. The university, in the aftermath, bowed out of major scholarship athletics.
“It was a fairly profound decision,” university President Kenneth P. Ruscio said. “It was controversial and defining for the institution.”
Nowadays, honor is a selling point for the school, perhaps as powerful for recruiting as its tranquil campus, with a series of academic halls that form the historic Colonnade facing the chapel where Lee is buried. Trust runs so deep that students often leave backpacks, textbooks, cellphones and laptops for hours or even days on open desks in a publicly accessible library, assuming that their belongings will be there when they return.
Details of exam procedures vary from building to building, but the essence of the finals week protocol — which officials say has been in place since at least 1970 — is the same across campus: Students have three-hour windows in the morning and afternoon during which to take exams. They choose when they want to do so for each class. In Newcomb Hall’s Room 105, a history department administrative assistant, Jennifer Ashworth, keeps a crate of about 300 manila envelopes stuffed with exams.
Shortly before 2 p.m. Monday, Ashworth asked students to form two lines to pick up the tests. About 35 students, many clutching water bottles and coffee mugs, signed in on a spiral notebook, received their tests and dispersed to various spots in the building to take them. The exams were due back by 5 p.m.
Theodore DeLaney, chairman of the history department, said he once taught at a public university in another state where there were often questions about whether students were inventing tales of the death of a friend or relative and the sudden need to attend a funeral in order to buy time to study for a tough exam. “You hear the same story three times in a row,” DeLaney said, “the level of trust disappears. I don’t deal with that kind of stuff here. It’s a real joy.”
Larry Hurd, a biology professor, said he spent years at a large public university “walking around the [testing] room, seeing if students had cheat sheets. I hated it.” But he was resigned to proctoring as a necessary evil.
When Hurd arrived at Washington and Lee two decades ago, he considered stories about honor and test-taking trust to be malarkey: “I didn’t believe any of it. ‘No way that’s true.’ ”
Now Hurd is a believer. Student-faculty relations, he said, are based on trust. “We’re not enemies here. It’s not us against them. There’s an implied conflict when you monitor an exam. I feel relaxed.”