While earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Georgia, Kayla Alward encountered a situation that set her on a path that led to her current position as chair of Virginia Tech’s Graduate Honor System (GHS).

“I was a teaching assistant and proctoring an exam and two students were boldly cheating. The professor was not there and the students did not stop their behavior, even though I made references to not cheating,” said Alward, a Ph.D. student in dairy science. “I know how serious it was as an accusation. I did not make the decision lightly.”

The professor with whom she worked chose not to go to the honors system with the incident, but Alward said she later learned they had an obligation to do so. Ultimately, she and the professor worked with the students to address the problem.

When she saw the call for student panelists to volunteer for the GHS, the incident came vividly to mind. “I wanted to be involved. I wanted to help,” she said. She applied for the role of chair when it became available, and was selected.

“I really enjoy it,” Alward said. “The biggest thing is helping students and professors who are really stressed calm down and understand next steps and their rights.”

Her role involves receiving and reviewing allegations of honor code violations and determining whether they are eligible for a facilitated discussion, or need a full review by a panel of graduate faculty and students.

For more than 45 years, Virginia Tech’s graduate students have abided by the Graduate Honor Code, administered by the GHS. The code’s standards were created by and are upheld by graduate faculty and students, said Monika Gibson, assistant dean for graduate student services and the advisor for the honor system. “One of the greatest values of the Graduate Honor System is its ethos of self-governance,” she explained.

The GHS constitution provides detailed information about the honor code, its implementation, administration, and the processes involved in reviewing alleged violations. One potential route to resolution is a facilitated discussion, which was introduced in 2009. Alward said, “This is the step where the student, professor and a GHS representative meet to try to resolve the case.”

“It was built on the idea that ethical standards are important, and we want to promote conversation between the referring faculty member and the involved students so they might be able to preserve their relationship or rebuild from the damage caused by a small transgression by the student,” Gibson said. “About 80 percent of the cases get resolved in facilitated discussions.”

Gibson and Alward said that cases not resolved through facilitated discussion are reviewed by panels consisting of graduate students and graduate faculty, who volunteer their time. Alward’s initial experiences with the GHS were as a panelist.

“The panels are where we have multiple graduate students and faculty members engage in the case,” Alward said. She and Gibson would like to see more faculty members and students volunteer to serve as panelists, and are always recruiting more participants. Alward said every panelist goes through a training session, and then their names are added to a list of potential panelists.

“There is no hard and fast commitment. It is as the faculty member is available,” she said.

When she gets a case, Alward lets the people on the panelist list know about it and the scheduled hearing date and time, and panelists can elect to serve on it as their time allows. Panel discussion usually take about an hour, and panelists may spend 30 minutes to two hours to review the case materials before the discussion.

“That’s it for each case,” she said. “In spring 2021, the GHS had 14 cases.”

Alward and Gibson said the facilitated discussions are interesting because they often show where there may be weaknesses or misunderstandings in communication. “They force us to talk about things we assume,” Gibson said.

Education is a key component of the system, Alward added.

“I think whether or not a violation has occurred is generally pretty clear. The difficult part is what the appropriate penalty should be,” she said.

Discussions include consideration of intent, and whether the penalty falls more toward education, in the case of misunderstandings or cultural differences, or should be something else because it is clear that the student knew what they were doing was wrong.

Gibson noted that some cases are difficult. “There are times that it is heart wrenching, but most of the cases are not.”

Both Gibson and Alward said the GHS is not designed to necessarily end an academic career. “The majority of students whose cases are brought to the GHS do successfully complete their degrees and graduate,” said Gibson.

Panelists often learn in the process of their service, and they connect with colleagues across disciplines. Alward said she has seen instances during a panel discussion when a faculty member has decided to update their syllabus to make the honor code and potential violations clearer to students. She’s also been asked to share her knowledge with students. During one such presentation, she said students have said they were not aware of “all the ways something can be considered plagiarism, or about self-plagiarism.” The Honor Code and GHS resources provide clear information about both.

Gibson encourages students and faculty to participate. “I think there are really interesting connections to be made with fellow faculty members and graduate students. You hear their opinions and can sharpen your own.”

“That’s so cool, to see professors take something away for the students,” said Alward.

For information about volunteering to serve as a panelist for the Graduate Honor System, visit the GHS website.

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