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Stanford Report, May 17, 2000

Revamped student judicial system needs faculty participation


The student judicial system has improved during the two years a new judicial charter has been in effect, but faculty members need to be more involved both in making clear to students what constitutes violation of the Honor Code and in participating in the judicial system itself, the Faculty Senate was told last week.

"We can do a much better job in increasing the confidence people have in the system and the level of participation," Dean of Students Marc Wais said in a status report to the senate. "The fact is, we need more and more people to participate in the system."

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Faculty, staff and students serve on judicial panels that hear student judicial cases. "We've had difficulty all year in filling the boards. We're supposed to have six faculty and we've been operating with four," Wais said.

Among its provisions, the Student Judicial Charter of 1997 increased the professional staffing in Judicial Affairs from one to two people so that one could serve as a neutral adviser and a second person could serve as an investigator and prosecuting officer. The charter also created a Board on Judicial Affairs to oversee the process and a mandatory hearing system using judicial panels, each of which comprises four students, one faculty member and one staff member.

The new system has resulted in a decline in the average time it takes to investigate a complaint and determine if a student is to be charged, from a six-year high of 85 days in 1997-98 to 30 days in 1999-2000, Wais said. The time it takes for a case to go though the entire judicial process has declined from an average of 132 days in 1997-98 to 57 days this year.

At the same time, the new process -- in requiring hearings -- is more involved than the old system, which faculty often ignored and even circumvented. Under the old system, "we averaged one hearing a year," Wais said. "Every other case was either dropped or things that went through the system were heard administratively."

Now, he said, "in all of the cases, technically, people really have a legitimate day in court." But Wais said the cases tend to "be messy and complicated," and he is concerned about the stress the new system can put on faculty, staff and students.

One issue that has arisen from the new system, said Wais and Jyllian Kemsley, a graduate student in chemistry, is the need for faculty to be clearer about how they define plagiarism. Wais said in some cases course syllabi have ended up "going on trial" because of confusion about what the course expectations are.

"The stakes are high -- we're talking about people's academic careers," Wais said. "We're talking about a lot of money, if you end up getting separated from school for suspension. We're talking about people getting very emotional -- with more and more parents and attorneys getting involved. All of these factors converge at once, creating, again, a lot more stress for students and the faculty with the new system."

Kemsley, who has served on a judicial panel, implored faculty to do more to sensitize students to Honor Code violations on a daily basis. "Faculty can help with this by bringing up the Honor Code in your classes and not just in one sentence to breeze over on the very first day. Do it every time you hand out an assignment. And this applies whether you're handing out a problem set or a paper where plagiarism might be the main concern," she said.

When cases come before panels, she said, "there has been no division among panelists between students versus faculty or staff." She added that there have been even "some very moving moments" when a student has thanked the professor for "noticing the problem and for talking to them about it."

"Many of the students who appear before us have made a last-minute late-night decision while trying to cope with nonacademic problems. And the judicial process has catalyzed them to talking to someone for the first time about how to deal with their life," Kemsley said.

A faculty perspective was brought to the discussion by Blas Cabrera, physics, who said that he had participated in several Honor Code violation cases. "They are never enjoyable experiences, but I came away with the feeling that Stanford is well served by the new judicial process," he said.

But like the others, he said the system only will succeed with faculty and student participation. "And eventually, we need to go much further to make it part of the Stanford culture," he added.

In a contested case that arose in a large introductory physics class he teaches, Cabrera said he was pleased that he did not have to act as the prosecutor at the judicial hearing. "Throughout the hearing, I was most impressed with the care taken by the panel. They asked the necessary difficult questions, but in a manner that was sensitive to the difficult position of the accused student," he said.

The student was found guilty and sentenced to a one-quarter suspension and 40 hours of community service. Cabrera removed the credit that the student had gained as a result of the violation. "In my mind, the penalty was sufficient for the Honor Code to be taken very seriously, but not so strict as to damage the long-term career of the student," he said.

While statistics on judicial cases are made public in the Stanford Daily, there has been little publicity about the cases -- mostly out of privacy concerns. President Gerhard Casper said he was struck by the system's "invisibility . . . you never hear about it unless it's in the dorm. Is that the right kind of system?"

Jerry Porras, business, suggested that "some sort of sanitized version of the occurrences" be made public as an educational tool. "And especially if there were recurrences of certain types of incidents, that would start to seep in," he said. SR