Since 1921, Stanford University has implemented the “Honor Code,” which utilizes an “honor examination system” throughout the university, where exams are taken without proctors and the school trusts all students to complete the exams without assistance. To date, this system has been in place for over 100 years.
According to the official Stanford website, the Honor Code was initiated by students at the university in 1921 and serves as an official declaration of academic integrity. The Honor Code represents a shared expectation between students and faculty for establishing and maintaining the highest standards of academic work.
Now, Stanford’s faculty is seeking to change the Honor Code, including the unproctored examination system, to address the rampant academic dishonesty on campus. However, the undergraduate students are highly resistant to the proposal, especially the restoration of examination proctoring.
On April 25th, the Stanford Undergraduate Senate voted against a proposal to modify the Honor Code, which was put forth by a 12-person committee known as the C-12 Group responsible for assessing the Honor Code and student arbitration procedures. The proposal required approval from five campus administrative bodies, with the Undergraduate Senate being the only entity to vote against it. The crux of the disagreement centered on the issue of proctoring, with the proposal allowing the school to study the impact and efficacy of proctoring. According to a member of the Senate, undergraduate junior Juan Becerra, the Senate opposed this measure for certain reasons.
Senate members are concerned that reinstating the proctoring system would lead to a campus culture of hostility and mistrust towards students. They stated that “it would create an environment where students feel like cheaters or academically dishonest, and we do not want students to be shadowed by this persistent cloud and be subject to invisible pressures.”
Undergraduate senators also expressed concerns that unconscious biases could lead to proctors unfairly targeting Black and African American students.
The decision to revise the honor code at a prestigious university has sparked a heated debate among students, faculty, and administration. Supporters of the revision argue that it is necessary to study the impact of stereotypes on the monitoring system, while opponents fear that it will lead to increased monitoring and surveillance of students.
Lawrence Berg, a fourth-year doctoral student in chemistry and a member of the undergraduate teaching assistant, acknowledged the concerns of some students about the potential impact of monitoring on vulnerable student groups. However, he argued that more rigorous academic research is needed to understand the exact nature of these issues.
On the other hand, some students, including senior Ben Beserra, believe that any research on monitoring will inevitably lead to increased surveillance of students. Beserra argued that “we don’t want to see anything related to monitoring or anything like that.”
After undergraduate students voted against the revised honor code, the matter was sent back to the academic committee. The committee narrowly approved a proposal by mathematics professor Taylor that would allow faculty members to begin monitoring from the next semester, unless the undergraduate council approves the revised honor code.
In essence, the decision by the faculty group means that students must agree to the university conducting research on monitoring, or monitoring will be implemented next academic year. This move has been labeled as the “nuclear option” by some faculty members, causing concern among the undergraduate council and some faculty members.
However, the academic committee defended its decision, stating that the faculty group has the authority to revise the honor code. The committee’s chairman, Kenneth A. Schultz, a political science professor, explained that the committee had conducted extensive historical and legislative research, as well as consulted with the legal office, and concluded that the faculty group has the power to make such revisions.
In response, the undergraduate council members expressed their disappointment and questioned the purpose of the earlier vote. Beserra stated that “as representatives of undergraduate students and as representatives of students bound by the honor code, we believe we have a voice and our voices should carry some weight.”
Academic Integrity Policy Under Reevaluation
In response to the rapidly evolving culture of academic dishonesty on campus, the C-12 group was tasked in 2019 with providing recommendations for revising the Stanford Honor Code and the student arbitration procedures first implemented in 1997.
As technology becomes more pervasive and diversified, Stanford and many other universities are forced to reevaluate their policies on academic integrity. Can students use Google during take-home exams? To what extent can they rely on ChatGPT when writing papers? Does it still make sense to prohibit group collaboration in the classroom when so many workplaces rely on open-source cooperation?
Brian Conrad, a former chair of the C-12 Honor Code Committee and a mathematics professor at Stanford, said, “It’s not just Stanford; across the country, managing learning and academic integrity in the face of opportunities for artificial intelligence development is a huge challenge.”
As one of the few universities that still requires teachers to leave the exam room during student exams, Stanford faces a unique challenge. While students have become accustomed to the freedom that comes with unproctored exams, teachers believe that students have abused this trust; they point to rampant cheating and turning a blind eye to fellow students’ violations of the Honor Code. According to the university, out of 720 reported cases of Honor Code violations between 2018 and 2020, only two came from students.
Having witnessed numerous instances of cheating in the classroom, a chemistry PhD student, Boggs, supports the reinstatement of proctored exams.
He noted, “The current Honor Code has earned no one’s respect – neither graduate students, nor faculty, nor undergraduates.” He believes that cheating has become “an integral part of the school culture.”
Other universities that prohibit proctored exams are also grappling with similar demands to revise their Honor Codes – although not necessarily from their faculty. At Minden colleges, the Economics department allowed proctored exams in 2014, and a recent student editorial in the school newspaper called for the abolition of the Honor Code because of its ineffectiveness; two-thirds of students in the Minden College’s annual student survey admitted to violating the Honor Code.
Holly Tatum, a psychology professor at Randolph College in Virginia who has studied honor codes extensively, believes that today’s students are less motivated to adhere to traditional rules of academic integrity, such as completing individual assignments on their own, compared to previous generations. “I believe there is a cultural shift happening on campuses right now that is changing how students view honor and integrity,” she notes. “I sometimes think this is a generation of ‘collaborative workers.'”
In December 2021, a survey of students conducted by Insider Higher Ed found that attitudes towards seeking technological help in completing assignments differed sharply from traditional academic integrity standards. Almost half (47%) of respondents said it was completely or partially acceptable to look up homework or exam answers on study websites, while 53% felt the same way about searching for homework answers on Google. 17% of respondents said using banned technology or tools to complete online exams was either completely or partially acceptable, although this proportion was lower.
Stanford faculty and graduate students are eager to reach some kind of agreement with undergraduates in order to advance the implementation of proctoring systems, rather than automatically launching proctoring in the fall semester. But this seems unlikely at this point. According to meeting minutes from last Tuesday, the Undergraduate Senate did not vote to center a proposed amendment to the honor code; instead, its members reiterated their view that the decision of the Committee on Academic Policy violated principles of shared governance.
Members of the C-12 committee have always known that the proposal would be difficult to pass. Graduate student and co-chair of the committee, Faye, said that their responsibility is “to reach a compromise between five groups with completely opposing interests.”
C-12 research, including extensive contact with students, faculty, and other universities, indicates that there is resistance to the idea of restoring proctoring, but it is not universal. Less than half of the students contacted expressed opposition to proctoring, but C-12 members emphasized that they did not conduct scientific research.
According to C-12’s final report released last month, in addition to the views of the Undergraduate Senate, students also pointed out that most violations of honor codes occur outside of exams, making proctoring a relatively ineffective solution to cheating.
However, some students are in favor of proctoring, as they believe it would be easier to have teachers or teaching assistants present to answer questions during exams. This also relieves students of the responsibility of monitoring each other during exams and provides them with more opportunities to fight against cheating accusations.
Fayein stated that feedback from the students and faculty mentioned above was the reason for C-12’s suggestion to investigate proctoring. She said, “An important reason for what we are doing is that we have learned about the expectations of different stakeholders for change and meaningful change,” rather than a “subconscious” reaction to Stanford’s academic misconduct issues.
Other revisions to the Honor Code include new text and definitions aimed at clarifying the responsibilities of both students and professors.
C-12 also proposed significant changes to the student arbitration process – namely, adopting a new tiered model based on the severity of the violation, past offenses, and other factors instead of a so-called “one-size-fits-all” arbitration system where students go through the same process regardless of the alleged violation. The new code will also focus on education rather than punishing violators.
Conrad stated that revisions to the arbitration process have been approved by all five institutions, including President Lavine, with one purpose being to ensure that a foolish mistake (or even a misunderstanding of academic dishonesty) does not become a lifelong stain on a student’s record.
C-12 will not be involved in Stanford’s next proctoring efforts. However, Conrad expressed hope that the committee’s years of hard work, advocacy, and research will eventually have a positive impact. He said, “I certainly hope that regardless of the ultimate outcome of discussions related to the Honor Code, proposals based on our work will at least receive attention from certain departments within the university to improve the culture of academic integrity.”