Honor Codes and Affirmative Action

I recently posted an essay here about a racial hoax at the University of Virginia Law School that quickly became an issue implicating the University’s honor code. Briefly, Johnathan Perkins was an attractive third year UVa law student from what could be described as a civil rights family inasmuch as both his father and grandfather wrote civil rights books. A few weeks before graduation Perkins sent a letter to the Virginia Law Weekly describing in vivid detail an offensive and frightening case of racial profiling and abuse he had suffered at the hands the UVa police. Or it would have been offensive and frightening abuse if it had actually happened, but it didn’t. Perkins made the whole thing up, he confessed after an investigation had been launched, to “bring attention to … police misconduct.” The police and the commonwealth’s attorney declined to bring charges, arguing in effect that charging someone for inciting a riot by shouting Fire! in a crowded theater would discourage others from reporting real fires.

At most places the refusal to bring charges would have been the end of the matter, but the University of Virginia is decidedly not most places. It has one of the most ancient and honorable Honor Codes in the nation, a code that most members of what “Mr. Jefferson,” in local parlance, referred to as the “academical village” take very, very seriously, and the honor code has a “single sanction” for those who lie, cheat, or steal: expulsion. Whatever happens with Perkins — his degree has been withheld pending an honor council investigation — his fraud has focused attention not on imagined police misconduct but on a long simmering dispute over what can be described as the “disparate impact” of the honor code on minorities at UVa.

Various explanations have been offered for the “overrepresentation” of those accused and convicted of honor violations, among them the SPOTLIGHTING of black students — they stand out in a mass of white students (they all look different?) — and the “DIMMING” of whites in a white crowd (they all look alike?). Really. No one at UVa  seems to take very seriously the idea that the “overrepresentation” represents  disproportionate actual honor violations. Whatever the explanation, however, the disparate impact of honor codes on minorities is not a phenomenon limited to Mr. Jefferson’s University. 

A 1993 GAO Report on the U.S. Naval Academy, for example, found the same phenomenon:

In examining the honor cases in academic years 1990 and 1991, we found racial differences in charge, drop, and conviction rates. This analysis involved racial comparisons for each of 2 years for honor case charges, drops, and convictions. In both academic years, minorities were charged with honor offenses at a higher rate than whites….

In addition, minorities charged with honor offenses had their cases dropped at a lower rate than whites. Further, minorities whose cases went to a hearing were found guilty of honor offenses at a higher rate than whites…. These differences were significant.

Similarly, a 1994 GAO Report found that the disparate impact of honor codes on minorities was present in all the service academies:

… although minorities are offered admission at higher rates than whites, they have lower academic predictor scores and lower academic, physical education, and military grades; more minorities are reviewed for serious failure to meet academic standards, and fewer minorities graduate in the top quarter of their classes; minorities are reviewed for honor code violations and are recommended for separation at higher rates than whites.…

The findings of those GAO reports provide additional confirmation of the “mismatch” theory developed by UCLA law professor Richard Sander in a number of articles. (Regular readers of Minding The Campus are no doubt familiar with Sander’s work; others can find discussions of it here, here, and here.) Although Sander’s work to date has not discussed honor codes, perhaps they will be addressed in a forthcoming book he and Stuart Taylor are writing.

One way to approach that question is to consider whether the "overrepresentation" of campus minorities in honors violations is simply an extension into college of the "overrepresentation" of K-12 minorities in disciplinary proceedings. Recall that Education Secretary Arne Duncan stuck a stick in a hornet's nest in March 2010 in a speech in Selma describing education as the new civil rights issue and announcing that disparate punishment rates would be investigated as disparate impact discrimination. As the New York Times reported favorably after his speech,

Some 15 percent of the nation’s black students in grades K-12 are suspended at least briefly each year, compared with 4.8 percent of white students, according to federal data from 2006, the latest available. Expulsions are meted out to one in 200 black students versus one in 1,000 white students.

Is the “overrepresentation” of minorities in collegiate honor code violations simply an extension of K-12 disciplinary problems? If so, can we expect Secretary Duncan to extend his investigation to colleges with honor codes?

Another explanation, and one that I find deeply disturbing, that has been offered for why honor codes have a disparate impact is that what is involved can be explained as a manifestation of cultural diversity. A good example can be found in the report of a 2000 task force set up at Virginia’s George Mason University to study its honor code. From the Executive Summary:

When asked if cultural differences influence adherence to the Honor Code, faculty reported, 32% "none to very little," 40% "moderately," and 28% "very much." 

68% of the faculty respondents, in short, thought “cultural differences” influenced adherence to the Honor Code (or non-adherence to it) either moderately or very much.

Another disheartening example can be found in a June 2002 Christian Science Monitor article about the University of Virginia, prompted by a scandal in which over 150 students had been caught cheating in a popular introductory physics course. “Some question whether an honor system conceived in the antebellum South remains relevant,” the article asserted. It quoted one UVa student who

believes that the school's honor system has failed to adapt to the contemporary student body. “The system is set up for an antiquated ideal.… It needs to take into account people's good and bad sides."

[Another student] believes the system works well enough for her to leave her possessions unattended. But she believes some groups of students are unfairly singled out. "Certain communities have been stigmatized," she says….

“If the values of U.Va.'s student body initially all-male and aristocratic were once relatively uniform,” the article concluded,

they are now varied. Today's students bring to campus nuanced perspectives on crime and punishment, as well as on the credibility of accusers and the accused….

“Students here cheat less, and take honor seriously,” [one student says]. “But many people want to see the school's good-old-boy network updated.”

One of the unfortunate effects of racial preference in admissions is the stigma it attaches to all students who share the pigmentary identity of those who would not have been admitted absent the preference, the equivalent of a yellow arm band announcing that those who wear it can’t be expected to meet the same standards as other students. That stigma, however, is as nothing compared to the slur that minorities can’t even be expected to refrain from lying, cheating, or stealing.

Complaints that a strict Honor Code represent an antiquated, all male, aristocratic standard appropriate only to the slave-holding ante-bellum South in which it originated, that it needs to be replaced by a new standard more attuned to a diverse community with “nuanced perspectives on crime and punishment” sounds more than odd coming from the Grounds of UVa, where “Mr. Jefferson” is not so much a ghost as a virtually live presence. The Declaration of Independence, after all, another "old boy" product, can be described in exactly the same terms. 


2 thoughts on “Honor Codes and Affirmative Action

  1. ,,, although minorities are offered admission at higher rates than whites, they have lower academic predictor scores and lower academic, physical education, and military grades; more minorities are reviewed for serious failure to meet academic standards, and fewer minorities graduate in the top quarter of their classes; minorities are reviewed for honor code violations and are recommended for separation at higher rates than whites.…
    I am puzzled as to why the author of the above excerpt began it with the word “although”. It seems to me that it should be “because”.
    Understand that I would not expect the circumstances above to be true of minority students admitted into the school with the same scores as those of other races. What would be interesting would be to compare the frequency of the metrics above if you compared them to only that cohort of white students whose academic predictor scores matched those of the minority students. I’ll bet that you would see a much closer equivalence.

  2. This seems to be another case of trying to make 2+2=5. If there is an honor code, either all adhere to it or there is no honor code, no areas of grey.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *