Does the Honor Code Work?

Does the Honor Code Work?
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*After ninety-four years, it may be time for Stanford to revisit its Honor Code.*

Before every examination, Stanford students sign the Honor Code on the front of each of their bluebooks. Individuals pledge to neither seek nor give unpermitted aid on homework assignments and tests and to do their part to report those who do. The system was designed for students, by students in 1921, and assumes the very best in both students and faculty. But ninety-four years later, is it working?

Last year, the Stanford Judicial Process found 83 students responsible for Honor Code violations, a significant increase from the usual 56-70 annual violations confirmed from 2009 to 2012. According to the Stanford Report, plagiarism cases generally constitute the highest number of Honor Code violations, followed by incidents of copying and unpermitted aid.

It is impossible to say for certain whether this recent spike is due to an increase in cheating or an increase in reporting. But at a time when Honor Code violations at Stanford appear to be on the rise, questions regarding the efficacy and relevance of the Honor Code are more pertinent than ever. And the answers will matter not just for students, but for professors and other faculty members as well.

Ross Shachter, a professor in the Management Science and Engineering Department, has worked on Honor Code issues for many years and currently serves as a member on the Board of Judicial Affairs. Professor Shachter works in tandem with the Office of Community Standards (OCS), considering amendments to the Judicial Charter (the document that outlines the application of the Honor Code) and proposing policy changes to the judicial affairs process at Stanford.

“What’s concerning is that I think students are aware of Honor Code violations, and they don’t do anything,” Professor Shachter explains. “I think the people who suffer from Honor Code violations are students who are honest.”

Professor Shachter’s concerns are hardly unwarranted. Statistics suggest that students have largely failed to uphold their end of the 1921 agreement to “do their share and take an active part in seeing to it that others as well as themselves uphold the spirit and letter of the Honor Code.” For example, in the 2008-2009 school year (the most recent year this statistic is publically available), faculty members and teaching assistants accounted for a whopping 90% of Honor Code violation reports. Even though students are in the best position to detect cheaters, only 2.5% of Honor Code violations were filed by fellow students.

While Professor Shachter believes the Honor Code doesn’t always work in practice, he enjoys teaching on a campus where students have sought an Honor Code and maintains great faith in students’ ability to adhere to it. “I don’t know of any Stanford student who takes the class intending to cheat,” Professor Shachter says firmly. “I think of [the Honor Code] as aspirational. We would like to live in a community where the Honor Code can work. And I think it works most of the time.”

Some Stanford students may be less optimistic. Reid Spitz (‘14), a graduate student coterming in Philosophy, agrees that the Honor Code is a noble ideal, but believes it fails to preserve a fair grading system. “The University does it because it portrays a good reputation or a good public image to people outside of the University and they want that image,” says Spitz. “But internally it’s not the best way to handle cases of academic dishonesty or cheating.” In short, he says, the current system is “fundamentally flawed” and places the burden of a fair education on honest students.

Just as important for Spitz, however, are the challenges the current Honor Code poses for students going through the judicial process. In 2011, Spitz co-founded the Student Justice Project, a group of Stanford students, parents, and alumni dedicated to informing individuals about irregularities in the OCS judicial process and providing counsel to those charged with Honor Code and Fundamental Standard violations.

“A lot of really simple issues become really complex issues because Stanford is unwilling to have people proctor their tests, for instance,” says Spitz.

According to Spitz there is an inherent conflict of interest when students are tasked with policing one another. Students are generally reluctant to openly ‘rat out’ their fellow classmates, and any policy of anonymity for reporters violates the traditional right of the accused to cross-examine witnesses. This paradox makes it very difficult to prosecute students who violate the Honor Code and still maintain fair judicial proceedings. Even if students are brave enough to come forward, Spitz points out, they generally don’t —it just doesn’t seem worth spending weeks working and testifying to convict their classmates, especially for what they may consider to be a ‘minor’ infraction.

“I think most people don’t see the problems that [the Honor Code] creates on the back end at OCS,” says Spitz. “A bad Honor Code leads to a bad judicial process.”

Despite their differences of opinion on the overall effectiveness of the Honor Code, both Professor Shachter and Mr. Spitz have suggestions for how the current system could be improved.

Professor Shachter believes that faculty members have a responsibility to be very clear about what constitutes cheating on homework assignments and exams. Before his time on a judicial panel, he says, he was very reluctant to discuss cheating with his students because it seemed to imply mistrust. Since then, he has realized that, “Not saying what is an Honor Code violation makes it much easier for one to occur.”

Mr. Spitz, who insists that proctoring exams would solve most of the problems he’s encountered in the judicial process, believes another fix would be introducing better reciprocity to the Honor Code.

“The Honor Code actually talks more about the obligations of professors than it does about the obligations of students. And yet there’s no process whatsoever to have a grievance against a professor with regards to the Honor Code. It is not a two-way street.”

One practice that Spitz believes tempts students to cheat is the recycling of old homeworks, a problem particularly common in the Computer Science Department. The Department has acknowledged this issue in the past and cited the difficulty of writing new assignments as the reason for the continuation of the practice.

Unfortunately, in the midst of these important discussions, it is unclear whether the University is ready or willing to tackle issues regarding the Honor Code or the Stanford judicial process.

The Office of Community Standards, which according to its website aims  “to promote the mutual responsibility of members of the Stanford community to uphold the Honor Code and Fundamental Standard,” has said they are focusing on increased communication with students about the Honor Code.  In a meeting with the Faculty Senate in November of 2014, Susan Fleischmann, the Director of OCS, asserted, “We want to get out there and discuss with students their obligations under the Honor Code and Fundamental Standard and really get a sense of how we can best reinvigorate their ownership of both the codes.”

When the Stanford Review reached out to the Office of Community Standards for suggestions on how students could better report incidents of cheating on examinations, however, Ms. Fleischmann declined to comment.

Students who wish to discuss the potential merits and shortcomings of the Honor Code system may have to start the conversation elsewhere. Both Professor Shachter and Mr. Spitz indicate that any changes to the Judicial Charter would have to be approved by the ASSU Senate, the Graduate Student Council (GSC), the Faculty Senate, and University President John Hennessy. The Board of Judicial Affairs would most likely have input as well.

The Honor Code itself, however, has never been amended. Any attempt to do so would be entering into heretofore uncharted waters.

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