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CNN Burden of Proof

University of Virginia Tackles Cheating Head On

Aired May 10, 2001 - 12:30   ET



LOU BLOOMFIELD, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: Theft becomes easy. A it's not even clear to all people what is theft. And now the loop is closing, where, yes, it's become easier to plagiarize, but it's also become extremely easy to catch plagiarism.


GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: With 160 years of honor tradition, the University of Virginia takes cheating seriously. Today on BURDEN OF PROOF, how a professor's plagiarism probe could spoil commencement at what Thomas Jefferson called his "academical village." And will the investigation reach into suspected cheaters among alumni?

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Greta Van Susteren and Roger Cossack.

VAN SUSTEREN: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. The University of Virginia is in the midst of a widespread cheating scandal as suspected current and former students could be stripped of their diplomas. With less than two weeks until graduation, Professor Lou Bloomfield is leading what could be the university's largest cheating investigation in history.

After hearing rumors from a concerned student, Professor Bloomfield's suspicion of cheating led him to design a computer program to catch students who had allegedly plagiarized term papers. The incident has been a major blow to the tradition of UVA's 160-year- old honor code. In all, 122 papers from the past five semesters were found to have duplicate phrases.

Joining us today from Charlottesville, Virginia is UVA Professor Lou Bloomfield. Also in Charlottesville, Thomas Hall, student chairman of the University of Virginia Honor Committee. And from Atlanta, we're joined by trial attorney King Buttermore, a former dean of student life programs at Georgia State University. Here in Washington, Thomas Hawkins, "Washington Post" reporter Amy Argetsinger, and UVA alumnus Morgan Till. In the back row, Amanda Ivey (ph), Thomas Whitney (ph), and Michelle Bartlett (ph).

Amy, let me go first to you. What is going on?

AMY ARGETSINGER, "WASHINGTON POST": Well, Lou Bloomfield is a physics professor at University of Virginia. He teaches a very popular class, Physics 105, Physics 106. It's called How Things Work. He doesn't like to think of it as physics for poets, but it's the physics of everyday life.

Every semester, he has between 300 and 500 students in a class. Every student I have talked to said it is a very fun class, lots of lively in-class experiments with fire extinguishers and skateboards and all kinds of things. There's one required paper for the course, a paper of about 1,500 words.

VAN SUSTEREN: Which is how many pages, what is 1,500 words?

ARGETSINGER: Oh, let's see.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let's ask Professor Bloomfield. How many pages is 1,500 words, some concept of...


VAN SUSTEREN: ... of what you're requiring.

BLOOMFIELD: Five pages.


BLOOMFIELD: I'm asking them to write about five pages, which is enough to really work through most topics.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, Amy. So go on. You've been covering the story. So what happened? They write five pages.

ARGETSINGER: A student came to Lou Bloomfield the end of last semester. She was dismayed by the low grade she got on her paper, not only because of the grade she got but because she said she knew of many other students who were simply borrowing papers from friends who had taken the class before, who had gotten an A on the paper, were taking large sections of their old papers and submitting them as their own.

VAN SUSTEREN: People are bragging about this?

ARGETSINGER: It was the rumor. And I talked to other students who said, "Oh, that was the rumor that was going around." It was quiet. It wasn't widespread. But there were suspicions among some other students. And finally, this one young woman brought her suspicions to Professor Bloomfield.

VAN SUSTEREN: What did you think, Professor Bloomfield, when she came to you with her suspicions? Did you think they could possibly be true?

BLOOMFIELD: I assumed they were true. And it really was my duty at that point to investigate, to try to support the honor system here. And so I planned to look through the papers looking for commonality.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK, tell me, what's the universe of years we're talking about in terms of your investigation? How many years back did you go?

BLOOMFIELD: I went back to spring of 1999. That's two-and-a- half years. This is the collection of papers that I have on my computers by virtue of having a web site for handling all of the course work during that time.

VAN SUSTEREN: How many years have you actually been teaching this particular course?

BLOOMFIELD: I've been teaching it for 10 years now. But it's been online as a course only since 1999.

VAN SUSTEREN: What do you mean by online with a course? I didn't do any online courses when I was in college. We didn't have it.

BLOOMFIELD: Yeah. I've used the web for the course since 1995. But started in 1999, all the paperwork, the homework assignments, every piece of documentation that goes between me and the students or back goes via the web. There's no paper anymore. This saves me from handling all this stuff.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK. So if you've been doing this -- if you've gone back two-and-a-half years, there are about 500 students semester. Is that correct?

BLOOMFIELD: That's right.

VAN SUSTEREN: And you teach this course two semesters each year?

BLOOMFIELD: That's right, too.

VAN SUSTEREN: So we have about 2,500 students that are in sort of your universe of investigation, right?

BLOOMFIELD: It's a little under 2,000, actually. And in that, I found 122 papers that were paired. So that's 60 papers that were original and 60 papers that weren't.

VAN SUSTEREN: Now, when you talk about these 122 papers, are they just a little bit similar? Or is this like word for word?

BLOOMFIELD: No, this is extensive copying. So some of them were literally word for word. And even the ones that have the least plagiarism, it's just many paragraphs in common.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why didn't you just catch this reading this? I mean, if you find 122 papers where they all have the same sort of thought on the term paper, why didn't you catch that?

BLOOMFIELD: Well, first off, I don't grade all the papers myself. Even if I did, reading that many papers, I would forget unless they stand out. Sometimes it's hard. I read my own writing, and I can't recognize it.

VAN SUSTEREN: Amy, what do you make of the fact -- just sort of to divert a little bit -- his practice is not unusual. Professors don't grade all their own papers. Who is grading them at UVA?

ARGETSINGER: Well, in most universities, especially in these extremely large courses, professors have graduate teaching assistants.

VAN SUSTEREN: Who are about how old and how far out of school?

ARGETSINGER: I can't speak exactly in this situation. But often, they are graduate students. In some cases, they may be seniors who are majors in that department who are well trusted. In many cases, though, it is graduate students who are helping to carry the load of grading the papers, and in some cases, teaching smaller section of the larger class.

VAN SUSTEREN: Professor, do you think -- none of your graders were sort of in cahoots with the students? You don't suspect that, do you?

BLOOMFIELD: No, not at all.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK. Now, how do you actually go about tracking these papers that were similar, actually plagiarized?

BLOOMFIELD: Well, I have them on my computers. Like any scientist, I'm used to writing programs to analyze data. So I simply wrote a program to look for common phrases in these papers. And it worked.

VAN SUSTEREN: Does it seem like there's one paper that's been passed around to everybody? Or are there sort of a number of them?

BLOOMFIELD: Most of the pairs are unique. They're just one source, one copy. There are a couple of papers that have come back every semester.

VAN SUSTEREN: Thomas, let me go to you. You are a student at UVA. And what is going to happen? What do you think should happen?

THOMAS HALL, CHAIRMAN, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA HONOR COMMITTEE: Well, any student who actually has cheated and is proved in that beyond a reasonable doubt will be dismissed from the university. We have a single sanction system here, which means that any student found guilty of an intentional serious act lying, cheating, or stealing is dismissed from the university.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me go back to you for a second, Professor, before I lose you. Are some of the people, obviously, who have been caught plagiarizing have completed the university. Is that right?

BLOOMFIELD: That's right. A few of them have already graduated.

VAN SUSTEREN: Have you made any contact with them or has the university made any contact with them to notify them that, well, they may need to do a few more credits in physics?

BLOOMFIELD: Well, I sent the documentation to the honor system. It is really their responsibility to make that contact. And I believe they have done it.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, we're going to take a quick break. Suspected cheaters at the University of Virginia are tried before a student court. But do they get due process? And is the trial constitutional? Don't go away.


DON MCCABE, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY: I don't think there's any question some of the new developments in technology are going to help catch people who are engaged in plagiarism. But I can assure you, based on comments I get from students that I have surveyed, most of them feel they can still beat the system in a variety of different ways.



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VAN SUSTEREN: A high-tech dragnet designed by a University of Virginia professor has netted 122 suspected cheaters. Under the school's long-cherished code, student defendants are tried before a student court with diplomas and careers at stake.

Joining us now from Charlottesville is UVA student and columnist for the university paper, Timothy Duboff. Tim, what do you make of this scandal going on at your university?

TIMOTHY DUBOFF, STUDENT, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: Well, I mean, I give him credit. He wrote a good program. Obviously it works. But, I mean, as I said, I don't have a problem with the values of the honor system itself. My one issue with it is that punishment is so extreme in some cases, and that's what leads the honor system, at least in the students' minds, to be irrelevant or at least ineffectual because it is so extreme it seems almost disconnected to catch them in lies.

VAN SUSTEREN: Tim, I assume that you are pretty well connected on campus. Is fear running -- I mean, are people pretty scared, those who have taken this course?

DUBOFF: No. I mean, I'm pretty close to graduation. So people aren't too concerned about that. But I think next year you will see definitely a new awareness among people writing papers. I don't know anyone that's written -- well, not written a plagiarized a paper in this fashion. But I promise you, things, the atmosphere will be different for courses in which you have to write papers. VAN SUSTEREN: Morgan, you're a UVA graduate. Was the honor code, did that have any impact on selecting UVA for you?

MORGAN TILL, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA ALUMNUS: It didn't have an impact on my selection of Virginia. But once you got there, it was a force. It was just given that the honor system was there, and that you had to abide by it. You walk into a room to take a test. There's a plaque on the wall that says, "On my honor as a student, I've neither given nor received assistance on this exam." And at that point, you just, you know you shouldn't cheat. It's a fact of life.

VAN SUSTEREN: I want to talk a little bit about the process. And we'll go back and talk about that for a second.

But, Morgan, shouldn't there be sort of a range of penalties? Or should people have their diplomas taken from them and those who are in school expelled? Do you think that the penalties should be that for plagiarism?

TILL: It is interesting, given that in this instance you have the Internet. And it is not people -- I've read things where people have gone through and said they are cutting and pasting from the Internet. They're taking information from different sources. In the past, you'd go through an encyclopedia and essentially just reword it.

VAN SUSTEREN: Yeah, but you use things called quotation remarks. That's the problem.

TILL: Right.

VAN SUSTEREN: And then you sort of, then you footnote them.

TILL: Right. In terms of the range of penalties, when you apply at Virginia and you get there, it is given. It's a single sanction. If you do this, you're caught, and you lose at your trial, you're gone. And it's...

VAN SUSTEREN: No questions asked.

TILL: ... None. It's been brought up several times. And it's always failed.

VAN SUSTEREN: King, let me go to you, to you another school in essence. On lawsuits, if you are a student, and you've gone through sort of the student processes and you're expelled for plagiarism, do you have any sort of recourse in court?

H. KING BUTTERMORE, ATTORNEY: Well, when you enter a university generally, there's an implied contract that you will follow the policies of that particular university. It is an interesting question about these postgraduates who might be drawn into this situation because it would seem to me that some colleges say, "We require you to take this many courses in this many fields in order to complete your part of the bargain to get a degree," whereas another university may say, "You have to do that, plus you have to follow all our procedures," like the University of Virginia has done. I don't think that these students will have much of an opportunity in court because in 1983, the Henson case in federal court determined the University of Virginia's honor code to be fair and in fact a model.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, King, though, when you think about it, though, suppose that I'm a UVA graduate. I'm now in my second year of law school at another school, another law school. And suddenly my diploma gets taken from me for plagiarism, of course, assuming I would dispute it. I've got big problems because my admission into law school was contingent upon graduating, as well of the fact you've got the whole issue of being a member of the bar. You've got to have good honor and good integrity.

BUTTERMORE: There are certainly many, many complications that would come to a person whose university or alma mater withdrew the diploma. However, arguably the student could go on and say, "I have the education and this may or may not affect me." The Bar Associations would think of that quite differently, I'm sure.

But, of course, if they have had the due process of the program after the accusation and there's notice, there's opportunity to cross- examine, there's a full hearing, there's a preliminary opportunity to learn about the case, and there's a fair resolution of the case, you don't really have a lot of opportunity.

And I think while the panelists have really challenged the single penalty aspect of this, and it is quite historic and quite well-known, and not many schools follow this. But you know when you enroll at the University of Virginia you adapt to their policies. And it may be a little late to challenge them after you graduated, and then it is determined you are guilty of violating such policies.

VAN SUSTEREN: We're going to take a quick break. We will be right back. Stay with us.


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Thomas, let me go to you. If I'm a student at UVA, I'm in this course to Professor Bloomfield, if I'm suspected of cheating, give me a thumbnail sketch. What are you going to do to me? What is the process? HALL: Well, the first stage, Greta, is the investigation stage. We assign two trained student investigators to speak with all the witnesses, gather all the relevant evidence. And then we go to something called the investigative panel, sort of like a grand jury, which decides whether to send the case on to trial.

At that point, what we see typically is about 50 percent of the cases are dropped at that point. But the other 50 percent go on to trial.

VAN SUSTEREN: And at trial, do I have representation?

HALL: You do. Representation by counsel, trained student counsel. Many choose law students. But the counsel do have to be students.

VAN SUSTEREN: Thomas, what if all of a sudden I'm sitting here. I'm three years out of UVA. And I think, "Oh, my God. I've read about this. I'm in deep trouble. I'm one of those." Is there anything? Can I go throw myself at the mercy of your student -- am I even beyond your jurisdiction I guess, right?

HALL: There's a two-year statute of limitations. So in that particular case, yes, you'd be beyond our jurisdiction.

VAN SUSTEREN: What about someone who is a senior, who is about to graduate, got his family coming to Charlottesville for a big graduation party? Now what?

HALL: Right. Well, that's a very difficult situation. What we do in those cases is that if the case proceeds beyond the investigative panel, we actually hold the degree. However, the students are able to participate in the graduation exercises just like anyone else. They're able to walk down the historic lawn, receive a diploma so to speak, have their name called at their degree ceremony, that sort of thing.

VAN SUSTEREN: Can I confess error now and throw myself at your mercy, though, and get out from underneath this if I say, "OK, I did it"?

HALL: Not at that stage. Once a student is under suspicion and that student knows he's under suspicion, there's really no recourse. However, before that stage, a student can submit what we call a conscientious retraction, where a student can sort of admit they're wrong in good faith, and then not have any particular consequences from the honor committee, although they may receive a zero in the class.

VAN SUSTEREN: Tim, step back and give me sort of the big picture. What do you think should happen to settle all these? I mean, obviously a huge impact on a lot of careers.

DUBOFF: Well, I think, as I said before, my main problem with this whole system is that it is equivalent to an academic death penalty. That doesn't mean you can't pursue your studies somewhere else. But you can't pursue them at the University of Virginia.

And I don't think that all violations of that we call our honor code are equal. I don't think they all merit the same penalty. And that's why I think we have to change this system. The single sanctions, this expulsion if you're convicted, is what I have a problem with.

As I said before, the values of this are the same. As far as how these students should feel, I would be pretty scared. But I guess they should have thought about it that before they were too lazy to write their own paper.

VAN SUSTEREN: Amy, coincidentally not only you worked for the "Washington Post" covering their higher education, you're a UVA graduate yourself. Look into the future, honor code system at UVA, anything going to happen to it as a result of this?

ARGETSINGER: I would be surprise if it does. I was there more than 10 years ago, and it was the topic of much debate, much as goes on today about whether a single sanction is appropriate.

That debate was not new then. It's continued to go on. It's hard to say what will happen. I just...

VAN SUSTEREN: I'd bet there is going to be a lot less cheating, risk of cheating, right now because of the impact. I mean, I would be terrified if I were a student there, Amy. And I'd be terrified not to put quotation marks even around my own signature.

ARGETSINGER: Well, that's what a lot of people at the University of Virginia are seeing as the bright side of this story, that it will wake people up to the possibility that they could be detected if something like this happens. There's a lot of concern that when you have classes this big that a certain amount of anonymity sinks in and people think that they can get away with this kind of thing.

VAN SUSTEREN: And maybe they can.


VAN SUSTEREN: King, let me go back to you on the question of jurisdiction. Thomas says two years is the extent of the jurisdiction for the student panel-imposed discipline. But you've got some of these people who may be out a little bit longer who may be sort of hooked into this.

Do they have any recourse at all? Can they do anything in court because the impact will be so extraordinary?

BUTTERMORE: I don't think there would be any problem in finding an attorney who would make a plaintiff's case in this kind of situation. I think one of the things that the university needs to take into consideration is the changing nature of students today. And when I was an undergraduate in 1960s at Vanderbilt, I signed a pledge after every paper as well. But a lot of things were told to people. And they did them in the '60s. And our society has changed. Our college students are wonderful people today. But many of them challenge and ask for proof when they are presented with information.

You've got to understand that we are in a society now where the laws of this country are such that 75 percent of the undergraduates on most campuses are below the legal drinking age. However, most of them ignore that law. And most of the university officials ignore that law.

And so students get a little confused about having to pick and choose about which rules apply to them. I support honor. I support academic integrity. But the fact of the matter is I was told many, many times by students that it's sort of like -- cheating in class is sort of like driving 60 in a 55. It's just a ticket to a better job interview. And we need to work on educating students at their entry to the university so they are oriented to our policies and they understand integrity and honor better.

VAN SUSTEREN: And you get the last word, King, because that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests, and thank you for watching.

Today on "TALKBACK LIVE", the case of Nathaniel Brazill. He shot and killed his teacher. Should he have taken the witness stand? And should the trial have been televised? Send your e-mail to Bobbie Battista and tune in at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time.

And tonight on "THE POINT", the governor of Massachusetts is now hospitalized while awaiting the birth of twins. Can Governor Jane Swift run the state from her hospital bed? Lots of opinions, lots of heat on this subject. We'll get to "THE POINT" at 8:30 p.m.

And tomorrow at 12:30, with a federal execution just a week away, an interview with the authors of "American Terrorist," their book on Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. We'll see you then on another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF.