Stanford cheating controversy stirs honor code debate
Stanford University's 64-year-old honor code has been jolted recently by allegations of widespread cheating in a psychology course. Twenty-three students, out of 744 enrolled last spring in the sprawling undergraduate lecture class, are under investigation. Like most of the honor codes in effect at 100 or so colleges and universities around the country, Stanford includes unproctored (unsupervised) exams and self-policing by students. The latter provision, which calls on students to point the finger at cheaters, underlies much of the skepticism directed toward honor systems. Students simply won't turn in their friends, the assumption goes.
There are always skeptics, asserts Stanford's dean of student affairs, James Lyons, because the honor code is ``an act of faith.'' While his school's code might have been shaken by the extent of the current cheating investigation -- largest in the university's history -- it remains ``strongly embedded,'' says Dean Lyons. He contends, further, that the pyschology class case has ``indirectly'' affirmed the strength of the code, since anonymous student complaints helped set the stage for the investigation,
and campus debate over the incident has shown a sharp awareness of honor standards.
Stanford's current cheating controversy is another in a line of incidents that have brought honor codes to the public's attention in recent years. The Air Force Academy, for example, rethought its honor-code system after a cheating scandal last spring resulted in the suspension of 19 cadets. Also last year, the University of Virginia weathered a heated debate over alleged unfairness in the application of its sole penalty for honor-code violators -- permanent expulsion. Princeton's honor code recently wi thstood a legal challenge by a former student who had been suspended after a violation.
Since the proctoring of exams seems a fairly straightforward procedure, why not adopt that instead of the sometimes perilous honor system?
In Lyons's view, the honor code creates an atmosphere of trust, which assumes ``that what one says in relation to his or her scholarship is the truth.'' Then, he contends, intellectual energies can be ``devoted to challenging that scholarship'' -- debating and assessing ideas and conclusions. With proctoring, he says, faculty and students ``move from an assumption of trust to an assumption of mistrust,'' which ``subtly chills'' relationships between individuals in the academic community.
Proctoring also requires a large investment of faculty time, but that alone wouldn't be reason enough to reject closely monitored exams, says Lyons. Trust is the central issue, he reiterates.
Harvard has a longstanding tradition of proctored exams. But John Marquand, assistant dean of the college at Harvard, notes that just this past summer the university undertook an extensive study of honor codes at ``60 to 80'' schools around the United States. The purpose, he says, is to fuel discussion of an honor code for Harvard. A final decision on the adoption of an honor code would probably require a student referendum, says Dean Marquand, and he admits to some skepticism over the chances of arrivi ng at a consensus in favor of a code, given Harvard's diversity.
Beyond that, he adds, Harvard's stand has been that students shouldn't be expected to take responsibility for the behavior of other students.
The faculty, he says, is responsible for upholding the standard of ``honorable behavior'' expected of students, and proctoring of exams, usually by graduate teaching assistants, fits under that responsibility.
Lyons explains that Stanford's code includes provisions about the faculty's responsibility to ``avoid conditions that create undue temptation'' for students. An obvious example, he suggests, would be a timed, take-home examination. It's hard enough for students to stop working on a test when the time limit has expired in a classroom situation, he points out.
The pyschology class last spring had some substantial problems with regard to ``tempting conditions,'' according to both Dean Lyons and the course instructor, Philip Zimbardo. In a letter to the Stanford Daily, Professor Zimbardo noted that the size of the class outstripped the seating capacity in the lecture hall by almost 200.
A sole graduate teaching assistant was assigned to assist Zimbardo. Consequently, he wrote, multiple-choice exams scored by machine were the only practical option. All these factors helped create what he terms ``an ecology of anonymity'' hardly conducive to ``self-monitoring.''
Stanford, by the way, has polled its student body on attitudes toward cheating and plagiarism four times since 1961, most recently last year. Responses have been fairly consistent, with from 14 to 21 percent of students admitting they'd copied from another student during an exam, for example. The 1984 response on that point was 18 percent. Such findings indicate that today's students ``are not going to hell in a handbasket,'' observes Lyons. He notes with some satisfaction that the '84 survey also show ed a slight increase in the number of students willing to turn in cheaters. How Stanford's honor code is enforced
The investigation into cheating in a Stanford psychology class got rolling when a graduate teaching assistant, the only one assigned to the course, noticed that two computerized test sheets for the final examination had identical answers. Her suspicions had already been aroused, since the sheets had been handed in by a third party who said the students who took the exam hadn't been aware that it had to be taken in the classroom. On checking, she found that the test takers lived a t the same address. This pointed to some substance behind earlier, anonymous allegations of cheating in the class.
During the summer a check was made of nearly 7,000 test sheets filled out by students during the course. Close analysis indicated that 23 students were likely to have cheated.
When students are accused of honor-code violations at Stanford, the matter is brought before the campus judicial officer, Sally Cole, a sociologist by training. She talks to the accused students individually and weighs the evidence. If she determines that a violation has occurred, the case is taken to a judicial council made up of three students and three faculty members. The council's duty, explains Dean of Student Affairs James Lyons, is (1) to decide whether there was, in fact, a violation, (2) to assess whether there were any mitigating circumstances, and (3) to decide on an appropriate penalty. If a student sticks to a ``not guilty'' plea, the matter goes to an outside hearings officer.
The president of the university gives final approval to the recommendations of the judicial council.
The usual penalty for ``garden variety'' violations, such as getting answers from another student's paper, is a one-quarter suspension, says Dean Lyons. If there is evidence that students repeatedly cheated -- which could be the case in the psychology class case -- penalties could be two or three quarters of suspension, says Lyons. A student who cheats after already having been penalized previously would be suspended indefinitely, says the dean.