T H E H O N OR S Y STEM
him every second.'''It's my academic
career. It seems trivial to explain to
someone else, but for a student, it's our life."
Going before the Honor Court, Coggins said, "is a total drain on not only
time but on emotional resources as well."
Ultimately, Trinh and 13 other students were found guilty of cheating
"beyond a reasonable doubt" by the
Honor Court. But still it was unclear
whether justice had been served. By Janu-
ary 2001, appeals boards offaculty, students
and administrators overturned more than
half of the decisions, including Trinh's,
agreeing with the convicted students that
their basic rights had been denied by the
length and manner ofthe prosecutions.
The Honor Court elected not to retry the
cases because it lacked the resources to
conduct new trials in a timely manner.
The chain ofevents satisfied neither
party. But it did open up inquiries about
the Honor Court, a mysterious institution
that has developed its own mythology.
Some questions were easy to answer: No,
you cannot be charged with an Honor
Court violation for walking on the grass.
But others were more complicated. Do
students understand the document that
they are required to sign? Is the computer
science case an indication that the high
incidence of cheating reported on some
surveys of high school students has come
to roost at UNC? Are faculty members
fulfilling their obligation to turn in stu-
dents and explain what constituted aca-
demic integrity in their classes? Could the
process be more efficient and educational
ifit were set up differently?
How it's always been done
In many ways, the honor system at
UNC, which has governed conduct for
more than 150 years, is as sinlple as it gets.
Students and faculty members sign the
honor code at the beginning oftheir time
at the University, agreeing to abide by the
standards of conduct and academic
integrity it describes. If a student is sus-
pected of violating those standards, he or
she is supposed to be reported to the
Honor Court. The court investigates the
epr e/11 be ri O crobe r 2 0 0 1
case and, if evidence of wrongdoing is
found, the student is formally charged with
a violation and the case moves to trial.
More than that, the code is supposed
to be a symbol of a shared set of ethical
and moral responsibilities, a sign that
Carolina students are among the most morally
upstanding in the nation. For this reason,
conduct violations also are considered
punishable offenses under the code. The
students who overturned and destroyed a
car on Franklin Street in fall 2000 during
the celebration ofa basketball victory
could be suspended by the student Honor
Court, for exanlple, although confidential-
ity standards prevent the court from
revealing which cases it is trying unless the
students involved agree to an open trial.
The code represents a historic tie of the
current generation ofstudents with past
classes that pledged to uphold the values of
the scholarly community, an ideal that lies
at the heart of the University's mission.
Carolina and other universities that
have honor systems are the exception
rather than the rule. Don McCabe, a
researcher and business professor at Rutgers University whose specialty is student
cheating, says that fewer than 100 schools
have honor systems. Duke initiated its
honor code in 1993. Its president, Nan
Keohane, recently told Duke's alumni
magazine that the system "has yet really to
take root on campus. It is true that all stu-
dents sign it, it is routinely posted and
printed, and it does bind students to
demonstrate integrity in the pursuit of
their intellectual endeavors and to
encourage their peers to do the same.
However, for many students and faculty
members, the honor code is peripheral,
elective and unclear."
At Carolina, the honor code is so
much a part of campus routine that it has
almost become background noise. "It's
deeply rooted into the psyche of the institution," said Melissa Exum, dean ofstu-
dents and interim judicial programs
officer. Students sign the honor code
countless times during their time at Carolina - as a part oftheir orientation,
before scribbling their final essays of the
semester in blue books, when they turn in
But do they mean what they say? Jon
Tolle, a professor of math and operations
research, thinks there has been a change
in how students view code violations. "I
just think that at one time ... the idea of