- The Washington Times - Monday, April 15, 2002

CHARLOTTESVILLE University of Virginia students commit to memory this statement: "On my honor as a student, I have neither given nor received aid on this assignment/exam."
Students write this on every test in every class during their college career, pledging as their predecessors have since 1842 never to lie, cheat or steal. It's a tradition that has made Thomas Jefferson's school a richer academic environment, students say, as well as an easier place to find lost wallets.
But even here, where honor is so well defined and policed by a student committee, plagiarism has become a problem.
Since last spring, 157 students have been investigated by their peers in the university's largest cheating scandal in memory. Thirty-nine of those accused of violating the school's honor code either have dropped out or been expelled the only penalty available for such a crime.
Some students who had graduated lost their diplomas.
"It's not like we're saying, 'We hate you' it's just that we have standards here," said Cara Coolbaugh, 22, one of the students on the Honor Committee who has spent countless hours this year determining the fates of her peers.
The scandal began in a popular introductory physics class designed for non-majors. The course, which explores pragmatic topics such as why the sky is blue and how light bulbs work, typically attracts 300 to 500 students per semester too many to watch closely.
Instructor Lou Bloomfield said he started to worry about plagiarism after a student confided that some of her friends had copied papers from a file at their sorority. To confirm this, Mr. Bloomfield spent an afternoon programming a computer to spot repeated phrases.
He fed in computer files of 1,500 term papers from four semesters of classes, and matches started appearing.
"I was disappointed," Mr. Bloomfield said. "But I wasn't so surprised I have a large class."
A few of his students simply had copied from earlier work. Others had lifted at least a third of their papers from someone else's.
The Honor Committee, whose 21 members were elected just before the plagiarism scandal hit, was overwhelmed quickly. Most professors usually have a few students they would like investigated. Mr. Bloomfield handed over a list of more than 100.
Philip Altbach, a higher education scholar at Boston College, said he wasn't surprised.
"Plagiarism is more common now," he said. "It's just easier to do."
The Internet provides an inexhaustible source of information, and it's tempting to simply insert phrases directly into reports, hesaid.
A study by Rutgers University professor Don McCabe found that 70 percent of 4,500 high school seniors reported "seriously cheating" at least once on schoolwork. A similar study by Princeton University found that 74 percent of high school students plagiarized during the prior year.
Students are not the only ones doing it.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and author Stephen Ambrose both have admitted to lifting material from other writers. The Iowa Supreme Court suspended a lawyer's license this year for copying a legal brief from an uncredited source and claiming the work as his own.
Some instructors have fought back with computer programs like Mr. Bloomfield's. Several plagiarism detectors are available online. Sites such as www.turnitin.com charge fees to highlight sections of papers taken from the Internet. Mr. Bloomfield also offers an improved version of his original program free of charge. His Web site, now under construction, has received more than 5,000 hits this year.
The new vigilance by professors has been enough to discourage many from cheating, Mr. Bloomfield said. "The fact that students know the papers are being examined has made a difference."
Still, many at the University of Virginia say some students will cheat no matter how the school tries to discourage it.
"This is a competitive place," said Mark Waller, 19, a biochemistry major from Fredericksburg. "I can see a lot of people with extracurricular stuff going on and they can't study for everything."
After almost 12 months spent poring over student records and interviewing witnesses, this year's Honor Committee held its final meeting in a big conference room with bare walls. Just 17 trials remain.
"Some of this has been incredibly painful," said Thomas Hall, the committee's chairman. "These students just made a mistake, and now they're being dismissed."
Some students found guilty have appealed the committee's decision. Two students have since filed a lawsuit against the school to challenge their dismissals.
But a majority of the students still support the 160-year-old honor system. Students voted down a proposal this year that would have allowed honor-code violators to return to school after brief suspensions.
"We have faith in our honor system," said freshman Mythili Rao, 18, one of the new committee members who will be taking over this year. "When the news broke, some saw it as an indication that the system wasn't working. For me, all of this is fascinating. It's all part of the process."

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