Faculty Senate discusses cheating

Feb. 5, 2010, 12:03 a.m.

A lengthy report and discussion of ongoing issues surrounding Stanford’s Honor Code dominated the Faculty Senate meeting Thursday. Students, administrators and faculty members weighed in on the ongoing struggle to counter academic dishonesty fairly and effectively, while presenting data about issues of enforcement and student culture that startled some in the Academic Council.

The range of factors complicating the enforcement of the Honor Code and the lack of easy solutions to some of the problems affecting it were the running theme of a range of presentations. After more than an hour of data and debate, Sunil Kumar, senior associate dean of the Graduate School of Business, concluded that these issues necessitated a systematic review of Stanford’s existing policies — comparing the need directly to the motives underlying the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), also announced at the meeting.

“One of the problems with the Honor Code is the more broken it is, the less likely you are to find that it’s broken,” Kumar said. “And so therefore I think a systematic survey is just called for, regardless of whether it’s broken or not.”

To the extent that speakers agreed about the nature of the problem of academic dishonesty and its most effective solutions, opinion converged in favor of fostering and encouraging a student culture willing to hold itself to high standards — and possessing a clear understanding of faculty expectations.
Computer science professor Eric Roberts laid out the history of attempted evaluation and revision of Honor Code policies, an ongoing negotiation between the preferences of students and faculty members. He pointed in particular to the importance of the 1990s’ “Committee of 15,” chaired by earth sciences Prof. Mark Zoback, which preserved the principle of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but allowed for students to be found responsible for a violation by the assent of only five out of six Judicial Affairs panelists.

Following his remarks, Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs Christine Griffith offered dramatic data about Honor Code violations. She noted that in the 1999-2000 academic year, the Office of Judicial Affairs handled 52 Honor Code cases, taking an average of 83 days each. In 2008-2009, both the cases and their average length of resolution had increased: 123 cases, taking an average of 132 days to resolve.

Griffith’s data also indicated that Honor Code violations for unpermitted collaboration, the most frequent offense, made up 43 percent of cases. An additional 31 percent involved plagiarism, 11 percent involved copying work, five percent involved receiving unpermitted aid and an additional five percent came from students representing others’ work as their own. The remaining five percent represented other types of cases.

Griffith also broke down how the overwhelming majority of reported cases came from the impetus of faculty members rather than students or teaching assistants.

ASSU Undergraduate Senate Chair Varun Sivaram ‘11 and GSC Co-Chair and law student Eric Osborne presented the results of a student survey on attitudes toward the Honor Code.

According to Sivaram, 55 percent of undergraduates self-reported that they would turn in a classmate for cheating compared to 62 percent of graduates.
Philosophy Prof. Kenneth Taylor strongly criticized the reported numbers, expressing a concern that they might disguise an even more prevalent lack of reporting in practice, stating that the University needed to “get angry” about a culture of apathy among students.

Osborne discussed graduate student attitudes toward cheating. In particular, he argued that graduate students serving as teaching assistants felt unwilling to report cheating from their students, out of a concern that to raise an Honor Code issue would annoy their academic advisers — whose positive opinion is a matter of significant concern for most graduate students.

Humanities and Sciences

Prior to the spirited discussion of the Honor Code, Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S), reported on his school’s profile within the University and its ongoing priorities.

H&S currently has the largest number of “ladder” faculty in the University, more than 500 in total. While some faculty in attendance expressed concern about the rate of hiring in H&S, which slowed dramatically in the wake of the University’s budget cuts, Saller said that hiring remained the top priority of the school and would pick up again when the proper resources were in place. He pointed in particular to pressing needs in South Asian and Middle Eastern studies, an overall and ongoing weakness for the University despite the efforts of current faculty members.

Encouraging news for the faculty search were data indicating that the turbulent hiring years of academic year 2007-08 to academic year 2009-10 had seen an improvement in both the University’s faculty retention, and its ability to lure away faculty from other institutions. The school looms even larger, however, among the student population. Saller noted that 80 percent of undergraduate degrees at the University are awarded from H&S. Saller said, with evident pride, that 91 to 92 percent of undergraduates reported a “good” or “excellent” experience there, and reported an “excellent” experience more frequently than at peer institutions.

H&S also has approximately 2,000 doctoral students and 500 master’s students. Saller reiterated his commitment to adding 50 graduate fellowships to the school’s resources.

The Faculty Senate is next scheduled to meet on Feb. 18.

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