How Widespread is Cheating at UVA?

Honor Code

by James A. Bacon

Thirteen days ago, a University of Virginia student with the unlikely screen name of Worldly-Anteater3429 posed a question on the UVA channel of Reddit, a social-media discussion site. “What would happen, “he (or she) asked, “if someone tried to take a paper test outside the room?”

In a class of 100 or more, Worldly Anteater said, it would be easy to do. Worldly Anteater insisted he would never do such a thing but wondered whether cheaters would get away with it or, if caught, how they might get caught.

There ensued an exchange in the discussion thread that should be alarming to anyone intent upon preserving the Honor Code.

A student going by the name of Cthecookie said that based on his experience “almost half of the people I knew” collaborated in some way on the chemistry exams. “All it takes is one phone call to collaborate with your buddy on the exam while absolutely nobody is proctoring you.” (No one considered cheating in Genetics, he added. He offered no explanation of why that might be.)

Another student, calling himself SalimHakeem, said he had “encountered so many people cheating and from the most unsuspecting students.”

I saw two students close their laptops without exiting the exam (they were talking throughout the exam so my focus was already off) and reopened their MacBook’s in the lobby area.

Then I overheard a group of students talking about cheating methods in CS. There was also another time when I saw like six students taking the CS final in Clemons and they had the nerve to ask me for tutoring help lol. There’s like a underground network.

That comment prompted a retort from revengeseeker1. “If you have encountered students cheating, why didn’t you turn them in?”

“Life is hard enough on its own I don’t need any extra problems,” replied SalimHakeen. “Besides, i would have no proof. I’m not going to creep on any students.” (Punctuation added for clarity.)

A comment in a different thread two months ago suggests that Biology Department faculty are aware of the cheating. But instead of reporting students to the Honor Council, which embroils professors in a lengthy, time-consuming adjudication process with no certainty of outcome, faculty have changed the way they deliver tests. A certain ObjectImaginary7044, said, “I hear every Biology class converted to paper scantrons this semester since the Biology department apparently believes everyone cheats.”

PatriciaPonders, self-described as an alumna who is “friends with profs in other departments,” added, “Cheating has become a huge issue and devalues everyone’s degree. I suspect that Biology will stick with paper exams for a while now that they’ve switched.”

(The Jefferson Council has not independently confirmed that the Biology Department has changed its testing format.)

In an exchange with an alumnus critical of those who condone cheating, another student typed, “I couldn’t care less about other people cheating. I don’t really see a difference between going to office hours and begging the professor for special hints (allowed and encouraged) versus asking other students for special hints (very forbidden). … It may be more effective to figure out what causes cheating to be so prolific instead of condemning little students who are mostly messengers of their conditions.”

Discussion about cheating at UVA is nothing new on Reddit, which, ironically, was founded in 2005 by UVA grads Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian. While cheating occurred before the Covid epidemic, the switching from face-to-face to online classes during the shutdown created unparalleled opportunities — and temptation — to take shortcuts.

In a four-year-old post, commenter butitsmylighter was harsh. “It is extremely naive to assume that students at UVA were not cheating pre-Covid19,” he wrote. “I personally haven’t participated in any cheating, but I am well aware of others who have (and if you aren’t you’re either lying to yourself or quite honestly blind).”

The Honor system at UVA, imo, is purely symbolic. Like many UVA CIOs, it doesn’t really “do” anything. If you look on their website/ the Bicentennial Report, you can find that there are hardly any cases that go to trial in any given semester. It seems Honor isn’t much more than a marketing ploy used to entice students to partake in “student self-governance” (which after recent events is practically a sham) and designate those in Honor a certain social status not enjoyed by all members of the UVA community. …

The administration has made this issue even more profound. By forcing us to choose a graded option or CR/ NC we are in essence gambling with our grades. This places an additional incentive to cheat which isn’t normally present: can we really expect UVA students to be above the fray and refrain from cheating when their GPA is on the line? No, especially if they feel others are engaging in the practice.

It is impossible to know how widely butitsmylighter’s cynicism is shared. Perhaps the commenters exaggerate. Perhaps they are outliers. But their assertions are alarming. What if they do accurately reflect a sordid reality? Surely comments such as these would prompt the grownups to undertake an investigation.

The Honor Council has done yeoman’s work in accommodating the Honor Code to the moral sensibilities of today’s students. It has brought back the single sanction punishment of expulsion in some instances and implemented a tiered system of punishments for less severe cases. Honor Council members believe in the Honor Code and their efforts are to be commended. But if students are unwilling to turn in offenders, and if the faculty reformats its tests in lieu of prosecuting cheaters, then the “community of trust” does not seem to be working as advertised.

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5 months ago
Gene Bogen
Gene Bogen
5 months ago

There is no Honor System at UVA worthy of the name. Neither students nor faculty give a tinker’s damn about an Honor System. If you believe in it and report cheating you’re a racist, no matter the race of the cheater, as such a system is a product of white privilege and racism, right? So, let’s not disturb the moral rot that pervades UVA from the top on down.

John Staige Davis, IV
John Staige Davis, IV
5 months ago

I believe that cheating is widespread throughout American colleges and universities, especially in those considered ‘elite’, as students in those schools are especially competitive and prone to cut corners.
In the Wall Street Journal of January 8th, there is an Opinion Piece by Allysia Finley entitled “Claudine Gay and the Cheating Crisis on Campus.” Finley notes; “Academic dishonesty and crime are alike: No one will prosecute them if justice is hard to come by.”
There is a widespread moral rot in Our Country, fueled, in part, by the fear of being labeled a ‘racist.’
Though the UVa Honor System is enforced by the students, it is up to the University Faculty leadership to speak up regularly with genuine on-going support for a “Community of Trust.”

Wahoo 76
Wahoo 76
5 months ago

Absolutely! And they won’t because their leadership (Ryan and his minions) won’t speak up. The tone at the top is crucial.

Wahoo 76
Wahoo 76
5 months ago

Of all the rot at UVA, the essential demise of the Honor System has saddened me the most.