What do we want from our Honor Code?

Opinion by Editorial Board
Oct. 8, 2012, 9:48 p.m.

The Stanford Honor Code, written by the student body in 1921, governs standards of academic integrity at this school. It is fairly moderate as far as university honor codes go — neither as open and trusting as Harvey Mudd’s, which has almost exclusively take-home finals and 24-hour building access for all students, nor as stringent and unforgiving as the University of Virginia’s, which requires automatic expulsion for any violation of the code.

By now, most of us are familiar with the Honor Code’s most well-known tenets. It is the reason, for instance, that examinations are not directly proctored by professors or TAs; the Code states that the faculty “manifests its confidence in the honor of its students by refraining from proctoring examinations and from taking unusual and unreasonable precautions to prevent [academic dishonesty].”

We, the students, are theoretically trusted (and expected) to be our own academic police force. The original spirit of the Honor Code is not being fully embodied in its current practice. This is particularly evident in the overly rigid structure of some university examinations, which exhibit neither trust nor confidence in the honor of the students.

While we realize that there are administrative and logistical benefits to requiring students to take end-of-term exams all at the same time and in the same room, this can have detrimental effects for certain groups of students. Athletes at away games or tournaments, for instance, are often forced to take rushed final exams in between games, races, or matches merely because the exam is being administered at Stanford at the same time. The same holds true for scientists presenting their work, artists performing or presenting a piece, or aspiring businessmen and businesswomen away interviewing for jobs around the country and the world.

Many classes require a sit-down, end-of-quarter final exam in a rigid time slot; syllabi note that students may not take the class if they cannot make this time. Undergraduates are familiar with the shortcomings of this rigid structure: multiple exams in a compressed window of time, exams later or earlier than students’ optimal test-taking hours, conflicts with other commitments and other issues affect students’ abilities to take classes they want and perform well on their exams.

A true interpretation of the Honor Code would account for these special burdens by trusting these students to take examinations on and at their own time. Many professors have adopted this approach already, which we wholeheartedly applaud. But we would like to see, as we believe many students would as well, this policy adopted at an institutional level.

Even for students not required to be away from school during exams, however, the current interpretation of the Honor Code needs to be re-envisioned. There is no reason under the current Code that examinations should not be universally in take-home format. Many students perform best when they work on their own schedule and in their own style — early, late, with music or without, in a dorm room or in the library. The only explanation for why this is not allowed would seem to be that students are not currently fully trusted not to cheat.

Maybe we shouldn’t be. According to the Office of Judicial Affairs, there were 82 Honor Code violations in 2008-09, the most recent year for which detailed statistics are available. A more open policy on examinations would certainly encourage more cheating, especially given the pressures students currently face to succeed. It may be that the cost of opening up examinations outweighs the benefits.

In all likelihood, more than 82 violations of the Code occur in any given year solely on exams, and the figure is probably increasing as smartphones become more sophisticated, more discreet and more widespread. Cheating on take-home exams, a difficult task to detect, has likely plateaued, but this is a figure no one could possibly determine with accuracy.

The real question to ask is what we, the students of the University who have the responsibility to amend the honor code, want to do. If we want complete trust from the University and want to rely on the self-control of students to prevent cheating, we should start demanding the Honor Code be more strictly adhered to.

On the other hand, if we wish to continue the policies in place today that seek to prevent cheating at the institutional level, we should amend the Honor Code to reflect that reality. There are pros and cons to both decisions, but the conversation should be happening.

The Editorial Board includes a chair, who is appointed by the editor in chief, and six other members. The editor in chief and executive editors are ex-officio members, who may debate on and veto articles, but cannot vote or otherwise contribute to the writing process. Current voting members include Editorial Board Chair Nadia Jo ’24 and members Seamus Allen ’25, Joyce Chen ’25, YuQing Jiang ’25, Jackson Kinsella ’27, Alondra Martinez ’26 and Anoushka Rao ’24.

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