Professionalism/A Matter of Honor: Lou Bloomfield and Academic Dishonesty


In 2001, Lou Bloomfield, professor of Physics at the University of Virginia, discovered 158 final papers submitted for his popular introductory physics class that appeared plagiarized.[1] This led to the expulsion of current students and the revocation of degrees of some alumni and left the University community struggling to define the identity of a vaunted honor system almost as old as the University itself.

Honor Through The YearsEdit

Troubled BeginningsEdit

In 1825, the first class of students at the U.Va. signed a pledge to follow the University's rules, including not cheating on exams, or lying to professors.[2] However, this pledge did little to instill good behavior. Riots, brawls, duels, cheating, and drunken escapades were numerous. The faculty openly clashed with students (mostly privileged Southerners) and professors were frequently targets of abuse.[3]:122

The Turning PointEdit

The student's strict sense of honor led them to support each other no matter what;[3]:37 their code was inviolable, and stymied faculty inquiries.[3]:87 The divide between faculty and students came to a head in 1840 during the anniversary of a student riot, when student Joseph Semmes mortally wounded professor A.G. Davis.[3]:124 Finally, students realized how their acts of disobedience had gone too far and worked together to turn in Semmes.[3]:124

Seeds of ChangeEdit

Two years later, U.Va. went from a hotbed of violence and scandal to an institution more in line with Thomas Jefferson's vision.[3]:153 The faculty began recommending the repeal of rules that proved unpopular among students[3]:132 and they appealed to the student's strong sense of honor, to coax the admission of rules violations.[3]:133 Subsequently, the first official honor pledge of the university was written on July 4th, 1842. Professor Henry St. George Tucker resolved "that in all future examinations … each candidate shall attach to the written answers … a certificate of the following words: I, A.B., do hereby certify on my honor that I have derived no assistance during the time of this examination from any source whatsoever.”[4] Tucker warned that continued cheating and misconduct could bring ruin to the school, asking "is it indeed true that Virginia can maintain no Seminary because of the unruly character of her sons?"[3]:135 With their personal honor now tied to the honor of the university, students took ownership of governing the Honor System, establishing a strong identity.

Evolution of HonorEdit

Since the 19th century, the university community showed repeated concerns that the high standards of the Honor System were irrelevant and ignored. An expanding university that can no longer hold its identity in the Honor System has been a concern in multiple eras:

"College honor, is gradually declining, and breaches against the unwritten code are now winked at." - College Topics, 1892[5]
"Difficulties tend to become intensified as our university grows... with an enormously increased student body, the standard of conduct at the University of Virginia... might be lowered in time by the influx of men whose former environments have not demanded the same standard of academic life." - College Topics, 1916[5]
"We have seen too many... dismissal of men from the University for honor offenses... But a tradition exists because it has worthwhile and lasting attributes." - College Topics, 1942[5]

The changing landscape of the university through the years has challenged the meaning of the Honor System while students and alumni alike continually strive to maintain its relevance and effectiveness.

Lou Bloomfield's DiscoveryEdit

The ScandalEdit

In 2001, a student in professor Lou Bloomfield's popular "How Things Work" physics course came to him disgruntled about a grade they received on the course term paper. They argued that others with better grades had cheated, prompting Bloomfield to create a program that scanned 1800 papers from the previous five semesters.[6] 75 cases of plagiarism were found, causing Bloomfield to eventually submit 148 cases to the honor committee.[7] 45 students were eventually expelled and three students had awarded degrees following under the school's single sanction standard, by which any violation of the Honor Code is punishable by expulsion.

The AftermathEdit

Speaking about the case two years later, Bloomfield noted that he wouldn't do it again, saying: “It took too much of my life. It was two years that came out of my research, my writing and my family...And there was no recognition for it. It was a total loss.” He found it difficult to work within the current honor system, which is governed by students, and found no support from the University's administration. John T. Casteen III, President of the University, said the adversarial nature of the system prevented the school from weighing in with support for either the accused or the accuser.[8]

Bloomfield noted that a well-meaning professor participating in an investigation faces a "time-sink," with no support staff or reimbursement, and may even face lawsuits that could ruin their careers. Bloomfield also said that faculty members were so frustrated by the system that they either refused to acknowledge that any cheating took place or preferred to handle cases on their own.[8] Before the faculty senate, he remarked that students had relinquished their responsibility for maintaining the Honor Code and that faculty should never have stepped in to fill the void.[9]

How did the System Fail?Edit

Bloomfield's case shows a systemic failure of the Honor System but this one case is not sufficient to suggest the scale to which the Honor Code has been compromised or why it failed in this instance. Understanding changes in the university that preceded the case may help to unearth the causes.

Demand for a College DegreeEdit

The demand for college education has risen in a more competitive job market and as such the cost of a college education has risen.[10] The number of bachelor's degrees conferred in the US increased about 50% from 1971 (839,730) to 2001 (1,244,171).[11] The University's in-state tuition doubled from $2,971 in 1971 to $5,740 in 2001 (price presented in $-value of 2016).[12] The increasing demand for a college degree and the soaring tuition might have encouraged more students to rationalize cheating in order to succeed in their classes because they feel they need the degree and feel like a lot is at stake with the cost of tuition.

Increasing Class SizeEdit

The number of U.Va. undergraduates doubled from 6,576 in 1970 to 12,489 in 2000. In contrast, he number of professors increased about 33% from 1,245 in 1970 to only 1,607 in 2000.[13] In bigger classrooms, students may feel more it's easier to cheat without being noticed. Studies also suggest that students are more to cheat if their relationships with their instructors are less personal.[14] The chance of forming a personal relationship between a student and the instructor may be lower in a larger classroom and that lack of accountability could lead to student dishonesty.

Changing University DemographicsEdit

U.Va. began admitting more out-of-state students, female students, and non-white students in the 1970's.[15] In 1981, one graduate student recounted that when the "College of Arts and Sciences was forced to admit women and more blacks, those who ran the Honor System stood in the vanguard of the opposition to such an event. They knew that if those other than white males were let in, the values upon which the system rested would go and so would the system."[16] The roots of tradition in a specific group's identity like, "A university man did not lie, cheat, or steal," (according to a student who attended U.Va. in the early 60's) may have alienated students who were not white males regardless of their belief in the core values of the Honor Code.[17] In 1999, many still suspected that Honor System discriminated against non-white students. In the 1998-1999 Honor cases report that Honor Committee was demanded to publish, non-white students were much more likely to be found guilty than white students were.[18] This suggests that regardless of whether minority students actually contributed to the demise of Honor standard, believing they did may have real consequence on those students.

University Response to the Cheating ScandalEdit

After Bloomfield's discovery, faculty and honor student representatives investigated the health of the system [19] finding that 95% of students who witnessed an Honor Offense did not report it and that only 14% of Honor reports were filed by students.[19] The Faculty Senate suggested the reinstatement of the Non-Toleration Clause, which makes an Honor Offense out of not reporting an Honor Offense, but their recommendation was not followed by the Honor Committee. The rejection of this proposal and the low student report rates support Lou Bloomfield's conjecture that the students have stopped holding each other to the system's standards. Following this investigation, student dialogue began about the punishment for violation of the Honor Code. The "Informed Refraction" proposal was passed in 2013[20] and in 2016, a vote on University-wide ballot gave students Option One, which reaffirmed the single-sanction system, and Option Two, which required the Honor Committee to investigate a multi-sanction system.[21] Campaigns for Option Two made the case that "the punishment should fit the crime"[22] while supporters of Option One believe the single-sanction punishment preserves the community of trust. [23]

But what is the Honor Code?Edit

The debate continues over the appropriate punishment for violation of the Honor Code. To see what the punishment is for, it makes sense to turn to the formal definition of the Honor Code:

"We seek to conduct ourselves with integrity, respecting the work and property of our fellow students and the wisdom of our professors. We aim to cultivate habits that will inform our work habits long after we graduate; to assume the best in each other; and to hold fast to notions of right and wrong, even when doing so comes at personal cost. Through this collective effort, our ultimate end is to live and work in a Community of Trust, where honesty and mutual respect are the baseline for all our interactions and academic endeavors." [19]

This definition and purpose for the Honor System is corroborated by University Alumni:[24]

“I graduated almost thirty years ago, and I still think about Honor Code at UVA almost every day of my life. Anytime I’m confronted with a situation that might work to compromise my integrity, my recollection of the values that Honor at UVA instilled in me helps me choose the right path.
"Honor is a time-tested program. Faculty and students have challenged the foundation of the System, and it has yet to be changed. It is student-run, with very little intervention. It is not simply a set of rules, but a way of life.
“I appreciated being treated like an adult – and trusted like one. In a broader sense, I think the real benefit is learning what it means to be an honorable student and person. It’s an important base to have before you go out into the “real world” where your honor is tested on a daily basis."

And by President Sullivan:[24]

“The Honor Code is one of UVA’s distinctive hallmarks. Employers tell me that their employees from UVA stand out for more than their intelligence and skills—the UVA alumni stand out for their integrity"

Va. alumnus James Hay Jr theorized that one can only say they have worn the "honors of honor" when they look back on their lives and see the way they lived.[25] From these perspectives, it seems the Honor System is not valued by alumni and faculty for its effectiveness at preventing cheating but for the way it has taught the students to live.

What should Honor be?Edit

The debate over the Honor System wages over punishment. If we adapt the Allegory of the Cave to the current debate, it seems the debate over a sanctioning system is synonymous with a debate over what shadow puppets we should be making. If the University's students wants to live up to those ideals, its requires them to turn around, gaze straight into the flame of honor and ask themselves how they can start to live it out. Lou Bloomfield agrees:

“The real crown jewel of the University is the community of trust. The value of the Honor System is not in the judicial process. You gain trust by earning trust day after day, supporting the community of trust with responsibility.”


  1. Cheating Scandal Met Its Foil In U.Va. Leader.(2002).
  2. Evolution of Honor.(2008).
  3. a b c d e f g h i Bowman, Rex; Santos, Carlos (2013). Rot, Riot, and Rebellion. 
  4. The University of Virginia Honor Committee History.(2012).
  5. a b c The Evolution of Honor: Enduring Principle, Changing Times. (2008).
  6. U. of Virginia Hit by Scandal Over Cheating.(2001).
  7. Cheating Scandal at U. of Virginia.(2001).
  8. a b Bloomfield Challenges Students to Take More Responsibility for Honor.(2003).
  9. Restoring Honor.(2012).
  10. The Economics of Higher Education. (2012).
  11. Bachelor's, master's, and doctor's degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions, by field of study: Selected years, 1970-71 through 2011-12. (2013).
  12. University of Virginia Tuition and Required Fees 1970-2014. (2014).
  13. University of Virginia On-Grounds Fall Headcount Enrollment. (2015).
  14. To Cheat or To Not Cheat: Rationalizing Academic Impropriety. (2012).
  15. Women at the University of Virginia. (2011).
  16. Colleges: What Price Honor? (1981, Aug 26). The Washington Post
  17. The Terror and the Honor at UVa. (1981, Aug 16). The Washington Post
  18. Questioning U-VA.'s Honor. (1999. Oct 3). The Washington Post
  19. a b c Community of Trust. (2016).
  20. Informed Retraction. (2016).
  21. Newman, C. (2016). "Students Mull the Honor Referendum That Could Reverse the Single Sanction".
  22. Vote Option Two. (2016).
  23. Lyons, F. (2016). "Preserve the Single Sanction."
  24. a b Benefits of Honor. (2016).
  25. The Honor Men. (1913). James Hay, Jr. Corks and Curls.