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Stanford Report, March 12, 2003

Vantage Point: Judging the Honor Code

BY Ross D. Shachter

In the 20 years I have been teaching here at Stanford, I have learned to dread discovering something suspicious in a student's work. It used to mean that I would be embarking on a rather frustrating process, trying to organize evidence that I am only allowed to obtain incidentally, and which was unlikely to lead to any rational conclusion.

I am happy to say that the process is significantly fairer and more effective than it used to be. Two things have happened to change my perspective: a revision to Stanford's student judicial charter about five years ago and the opportunity to serve on the university's judicial panel pool. I am convinced that the judicial process and the staff who coordinate that process have earned the respect of students and faculty.

Of course, Stanford's Honor Code itself is a cooperative enterprise between students and faculty, established in 1921 at the request of the students. Although the complainant is almost always a faculty member, it is the students' code. Honest behavior is the expectation within our community, and the students rather than the faculty are supposed to be responsible for maintaining that standard. As part of that understanding, instructors do not proctor examinations or covertly attempt to catch violators in the act.

In practice, while most students enjoy and earn the dignity and respect that comes with the Honor Code, many feel uncomfortable interceding when peers cross the line -- even though the honest students are the "victims" of cheating. Most of the student reports of cheating I have received over the years have been anonymous, and Honor Code violations can be difficult to prove with the information available to the teaching staff.

A big part of this problem is that Stanford's standard of proof for student judicial affairs -- "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" -- is the same standard employed in a criminal court. Only a handful of universities have such a high standard, while the rest are satisfied with less convincing evidence. Most Stanford students favor this high standard, even though the judicial process has a completely different set of sanctions and procedures than the criminal process. This is particularly frustrating for other types of student misconduct, such as acquaintance rape, where proof is difficult to obtain beyond a reasonable doubt. It seems as if students identify more with the potential accused, even though they are the primary victims of judicial violations.

Although the standard of proof has not changed, the judicial process has otherwise improved since President Gerhard Casper charged geophysics Professor Mark Zoback and "The Committee of Fifteen" in 1996 to propose the changes that became effective in 1998. Under the new system, hearing panels comprise four students, a staff member and a faculty member, working closely with the judicial adviser. One of the students serves as chair. Four votes are needed for action, but the panels I have seen have worked hard to reach consensus. The standard sanction for a first offense is a single quarter suspension and 40 hours of community service. The panel has the authority to consider other sanctions, but deviations from the standard sanction are not given easily.

At Stanford, there often seems to be a tradeoff between student discipline and the educational opportunity of a "teachable moment." By contrast, in the panels, there seems to be a real understanding that the educational opportunity comes from the fair and appropriate application of sanctions for violations. Although individual cases are confidential, it is important for students and faculty to be aware that sanctions are being consistently imposed on a regular basis. The Office of Judicial Affairs has worked to educate the student body about the reality of Honor Code violations and sanctions.

From my experience on the panel, I have learned that there is one thing that faculty could do to significantly reduce Honor Code violations. We often fail to clarify distinctions about acceptable collaboration or use of materials, with the notion that students should exercise good judgment. Being more specific is awkward and seems to suggest that we expect students to violate the Honor Code.

The reality is that a fuzzy distinction about acceptable behavior is a trap. Students are often completing assignments under considerable stress of deadlines and performance expectations. Many of the cases I have seen have started with a sleep-deprived student exercising poor judgment, but arguably staying within a generous interpretation of the rules. As the work proceeds the student continues to slide further and further into inappropriate behavior. The lack of a clear distinction was not the cause of the transgression, but it definitely facilitated it.

In summary, I still dread the discovery of evidence that students in my class have violated the Honor Code. But I am much more confident that the current judicial process at Stanford, despite its flaws, will reflect the spirit behind the Honor Code.

Ross D. Shachter is associate professor of management science and engineering.

Ross D. Shachter