On a sunny afternoon in October, in one of those generic conference rooms in Tresidder Union, the creaky machinery of Stanford's Honor Code is being dismantled. Almost every Tuesday at 4 p.m. for the last year, 15 tenacious souls--students, faculty and administrators--have gathered here to weigh matters of justice and fair play. President Gerhard Casper set the process in motion last spring when he convened the so-called Committee of Fifteen. Its ambitious agenda: to replace the tangled bureaucratic procedures used to handle cases of misconduct and academic dishonesty at Stanford.
Due in April, the committee's final rewrite of the 29-year-old Legislative and Judicial Charter is intended to serve as a blueprint that will guide the University's approach to cheating and student misconduct into the next century.
The questions facing the Stanford committee have been getting more attention lately at schools across the country. What can be done to discourage cheating among college students? Should students themselves be put in charge of judicial proceedings? Can a system based on a notion as quaint as "honor" still work in today's fast-paced digital world?
Cheating, in fact, is on the rise on college campuses. Term papers can now be downloaded from the Internet and math formulas or entire sonnets can be programmed into a wristwatch. Anonymous surveys in 1993 showed that 64 percent of students at nine state universities admitted to serious test cheating, up from 39 percent in 1963, according to research by Donald McCabe, founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity.
These trends are reflected at Stanford, where the number of Honor Code violations jumped from 19 in 1984-85 to 45 a decade later. In recent years, Stanford students have been caught plagiarizing, copying from a solutions manual and passing off someone else's work as their own.
Such examples are fairly typical across the country--and becoming more so. "Students are cheating because they see other students cheating and the institution not doing anything about it. So they feel they're at a disadvantage if they don't cheat," McCabe says. "But I think students at a majority of colleges today really want to see cheating addressed."
The solution, many schools have recently concluded, is to get students themselves to address the problem. This has revived interest in the venerable tradition of honor codes, which typically demand extensive student involvement. "You really need students to buy into a program," says Judith Viggers Nordin, assistant dean of Georgetown's business school, who helped draft that university's new honor system. "Otherwise it all becomes just another administrative thing up on the bulletin board." That's the direction Stanford's reformers are heading, too. "What we really want to do is take the responsibility away from administrators and give it to student panels," says geophysics professor Mark Zoback, who is chairing the Committee of Fifteen, known around campus as C-15
Honor codes are perfectly suited to this rediscovered approach because, by definition, they contain some combination of a student pledge, a student judiciary, unproctored exams and some onus on students to report cheating among their peers.
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The tradition of the honor code can be traced to the schools of the antebellum South. William and Mary College instituted the country's first honor code in 1779, and the University of Virginia adopted one in 1842. In those days, an honor code was simply an informal vow taken by the sons of plantation owners not to lie, cheat or steal. Violators were ostracized and pressured to promptly leave the school.
For many years, academic historians doubted honor codes could work above the Mason-Dixon line. "The sentiment of honour is an aristocratic product, fostered in the South by family pride," wrote University of Oregon professor Henry Sheldon in his 1901 book, Student Life and Customs. According to Sheldon, an early attempt to establish an honor code at Stanford failed because "the strong sense of personal honour is the peculiar product of Southern life and conditions."
Sheldon was wrong. Around the time that he was writing, honor codes began appearing outside the South, typically at smaller schools like Haverford and Williams. Stanford adopted its Honor Code (See Sidebar) in 1921. It essentially dictates that the University operate in a spirit of trust, and that everyone help in cultivating that trust. The new code was a natural outgrowth of Stanford's Fundamental Standard (See Sidebar.). Enshrined at the University's founding, that standard is a catch-all rule calling on students to show the "respect for order, morality, personal honor and the rights of others as is demanded of good citizens."
Today, McCabe guesses, about 100 schools have honor codes--and each has been interpreted the tradition slightly differently. Some colleges, like William and Mary, have retained certain elements of an honor system and jettisoned others, such as the so-called "rat clause" requiring students to police each other. Georgetown has an honor system but proctors exams. A few old-guard Southern schools, such as Washington and Lee, have preserved the honor code in its most draconian form: Cheaters are simply expelled.
But most institutions, including Stanford, have come to embrace more lenient readings of the tradition. "The majority of undergraduates who break the rules are fundamentally decent human beings who got themselves in a situation that they didn't see an acceptable way out of," says Sally Cole, who headed Stanford's Judicial Affairs Office from 1982 to 1996, when she left to run the Center for Academic Integrity. "You're 18, the world is falling apart, you have a paper due. Your roommate leaves a disk out, and you succumb to temptation." At Stanford, students are almost never expelled for a first offense.
Regardless of the specific provisions, honor codes do, in and of themselves, seem to discourage cheating. McCabe has found that students at honor code institutions report 30 percent less cheating than students at comparable schools without honor codes. "There are those students who are always going to cheat, those who will never cheat, and the 60 to 80 percent who arrive on campus asking: What's the deal here?" says McCabe. "That's the battle you're fighting."
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For more than 40 years, Stanford Honor Code worked well. Students caught cheating faced their peers, who decided cases and meted out discipline. But the turmoil of the 1960s put unbearable demands on this genteel process. Reformers of the day demanded a system that could adjudicate volatile, politically charged cases of campus disruption. So, while the Honor Code itself was left intact, a byzantine Legislative and Judicial Charter was created in 1968. That charter, still in place today, dictates how student misconduct cases are handled.
Under the new charter, the job of determining the facts of a case was removed from students' control and put in the hands of a neutral "hearing officer"--usually drawn from the ranks of respected local lawyers. Once the officer sorted out the facts, he would toss the case back to a campus panel of students and faculty, which imposed sanctions. The beauty of this two-part system was supposed to be that it insured neutrality and fairness at the fact-finding stage and--at the same time--maintained student involvement in the punishment phase.
But a funny thing happened on the way to justice: Most accused students chose to bypass the carefully balanced two-part process. By admitting guilt, they could opt for a route set down in the charter's fine print that allowed the dean of students to rule on the facts and impose a sanction. In a classic example of the law of unintended consequences, this turned out to be the path most students preferred. It allowed them to bypass the fact-finding ordeal and avoid standing in shame before their peers.
"The students in the 1960s created a monster," says Gary Pavela, director of judicial programs at the University of Maryland, who was brought in to evaluate the Stanford system a year ago. "There's all this due process on paper, but students don't use it. It's too time-consuming, and today almost everything is done by administrators, which was no one's intent." Last year, President Casper decided it was time to fix what he called this "highly bureaucratic and procedurally cumbersome" system. Last spring he convened C-15, which is made up of six professors, six students and three administrators.
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The members of the committee dissected this monster called the Legislative and Judicial Charter. Its contradictions and perverse incentives were breathtaking.
The flaws are first evident at the very beginning of a complaint's bureaucratic journey. When it lands on the desk of the University's judicial affairs officer, she has to decide whether there's enough evidence to make a case. If the accused student denies the charge, the case can only go forward if the evidence is "beyond a reasonable doubt," the same high standard used in criminal trials. "What I began to observe in the 1980s was that with 'beyond a reasonable doubt,' the only people you could hold accountable were those who were honest," Cole says. "Others would dig in their feet, hoping the burden of proof was so high the evidence wouldn't meet the standard--and it often didn't. That sent out a message to various student subcultures that if anyone asks about your conduct, lie."
It also sent out a message to faculty that students were being let off without so much as a hearing. Some professors gave up reporting problems entirely. "Cases have been dropped if the evidence wasn't ironclad in one person's estimation," says graduate student Robert Livingston, a member of C-15. "Ideally, every case would be brought forward for that student's peers to decide."
The increasingly overworked judicial affairs officer is responsible for advising students of their rights, bringing charges, gathering evidence, building cases--and educating the community about academic integrity. Having one person filling all these roles has led to concerns about conflicts of interest: How can the person bringing charges against a student be a neutral adviser?
Now, about those perverse incentives: About half of students immediately admit guilt. At this point, they have two options: to meet with the dean or his designee or to appear before the Stanford Judicial Council (SJC), a committee of four students and four faculty. For most students, this choice--dean or student-faculty panel--is a no-brainer. Whichever they choose, after all, the penalty will likely be the same: one quarter's suspension, a $100 fine, 40 hours of community service and a permanent record of the violation in their confidential file. In addition, the student usually receives a "no pass" for the course, Stanford's equivalent of an F. So, of course, almost all students opt to meet with the dean. It is usually faster. It is also much less intimidating. "Students are very afraid of other students finding out," says senior Danny Bramzon, another member of C-15. "It's embarrassing."
John Pearson, a member of C-15, saw the system's flaws up close. For four years, the director of the Bechtel International Center served as a dean's designee, recommending penalties for students who admitted to cheating. This role was part of the fine-print bypass that had been written into the 1968 Legislative and Judicial Charter. Designed as a dirt road, it had turned into a clogged freeway. Even when the facts weren't in dispute, he says, some students ended up waiting tortuous months to find out what their punishment would be as cases wended their way through the bureaucracy.
In the 1995-96 school year, not a single student who had another option chose to meet with the SJC. The SJC considered penalties on exactly two cases (and those were holdovers from the year before). Both involved students who denied wrongdoing.
With administrators processing all the cases, students don't really see the honor code at work. And that, many argue, is the heart of the problem. "The fact that students here have been largely uninvolved in the process has meant that they don't feel ownership of it and aren't in a position to take it seriously," says C-15 member Eric Roberts, associate chair of the computer science department, which accounted for about one-third of Honor Code violations in recent years.
Students, of course, have heard of the Honor Code and the Fundamental Standard. Copies of each are part of the pile of admissions materials new students receive; they also can read the texts on an obscure official University web page. In reality, says C-15 member Howard Loo, a senior, too many students don't have a clue as to what the Honor Code is all about, or even what constitutes a breach.
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The sweeping changes proposed by C-15 will address this problem of low visibility--and many more. For starters, all students accused of violating the Honor Code or the Fundamental Standard will be accountable to a panel of four students and two faculty or staff members. Put into student hands, the academic community may start to get the message that a rigorous Honor Code belongs to students and works in their best interest. It is ultimately the majority of honest students who suffer when cheating goes unchecked, not the dean, provost or president. When students are strongly identified with the system, cheating will begin to be seen for what it is: an offense against one's friends and dormmates not a crime against administrators. This in itself could be a strong deterrent.
Under the new charter, those bringing charges will always be informed of how cases are resolved. That should build confidence in the system--and eventually increase reporting. "It can be a real hassle reporting a case," says James Lyons, dean of student affairs from 1972 to 1990. "When faculty members are told the outcome, they realize they didn't send a case into a deep, dark, black hole. They see that, by God, something happened."
So will the community at large. Traditionally, a summary of violations has been reported just once a year. If the new charter is approved, cases will be reported regularly, possibly in the Daily and the Stanford Report. (The names of students involved will continue to be withheld.) Publicity can accomplish a lot. The University of California-Davis runs an annual, in-your-face campaign called "Integrity Week," during which students distribute engagement calendars featuring sayings about personal integrity, ethics and academic honesty. Davis students who cheat can also be required to take out ads or write anonymous letters to the campus newspaper describing what led them to cheat. It may sound hokey, but it works. One of the ironies of a visible system is that it tends to increase reports of violations: At Davis, they tripled after Academic Integrity Week was instituted.
As of mid-February, all of C-15's recommendations and President Casper. Only one point has proved conten-tious. "Beyond a reasonable doubt" has fallen into disfavor at most American universities, and a majority of C-15 favors lowering the burden of proof to "clear and convincing evidence." "We've never sent someone to San Quentin for cheating," Zoback said last fall, when the issue was still being debated. "One can argue that when there was a single person deciding your fate, you wanted an extremely high burden of proof. Maybe now with a committee, students will feel their rights are protected."
But ASSU president Bill Shen disagreed. "People say that with 'beyond a reasonable doubt' you run the risk of wrongly acquitting the guilty," Shen says. "I'm more concerned with wrongly convicting the innocent." Since the goal is to increase student investment in the system, C-15 turned the issue over to the ASSU to decide. In January, the ASSU Senate recommended that the higher burden of proof remain in place. A recent Daily poll found that 56 percent of students favored the higher standard of proof. "Beyond a reasonable doubt" is probably here to stay.
This may not be all that significant in the long run. A student deciding whether or not to cheat isn't going to factor in the precise wording of the burden of proof. And increasing the number of convictions is less important, ultimately, than making students feel less comfortable about cheating in the first place.
On campuses where academic integrity is little understood and rarely discussed, and where back-office administrators handle violations, cheating can seem no worse than breaking a few technical, somewhat arbitrary rules--the equivalent of rolling through a stop sign. But where academic integrity is embraced, articulated and enforced by the students themselves, cheating becomes something worse: It becomes dishonorable.
Jennifer Reese, '88, a freelance writer living in San Francisco, is a frequent contributer to Stanford.