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A photo of Hoover Tower on Stanford's campus.

Stanford University’s ban on proctoring dates back longer than its iconic Hoover Tower, pictured here, by 20 years. Students are resisting efforts to introduce the practice.

David Madison/Getty Images

Faculty members at Stanford University are looking to update the institution’s long-standing honor code to better address academic dishonesty on campus. But undergraduate resistance to one proposed change—the introduction of proctoring on a campus that has disallowed it for over a century—has complicated those plans.

The Undergraduate Senate voted on April 25 against changes to the institution’s honor code proposed last month by a group called the Committee of 12, or C-12, which had been charged with evaluating it and the Student Judicial Charter. The proposal needed to be approved by five governing bodies on campus to be implemented; the Undergraduate Senate was the only one to vote against it.

The sticking point was a new provision to allow the university to conduct a study on the impacts and effectiveness of proctoring tests—a move the Undergraduate Senate strongly opposes for a number of reasons, according to Senator Juan Becerra, a junior.

First, the senators worry that the introduction of proctoring would transform the campus culture into one that is hostile and distrusting of students.

“It creates this sort of atmosphere or environment that makes students feel like they’re cheaters and they’re not academically honest,” he said. “We don’t want students being shadowed with this looming figure over them, pressuring them.”

Undergraduate senators also worry that unconscious biases might lead proctors to unfairly overmonitor Black and brown students.

But to proponents of the honor code change, those fears are exactly why an in-depth study of proctoring is needed. Among other things, it would help the university better understand the impact that bias has on proctoring and what can be done to circumvent it, they argue. Any decisions made about proctoring after the study would have to be approved by the same bodies that were asked to approve the C-12 proposals.

“The undergraduates brought forth a number of valid concerns about students from underrepresented backgrounds and potential bias when it comes to proctoring,” said Lawrence Berg, a fourth-year chemistry graduate student member of the Graduate Student Council who teaches undergraduates. “I think these are valid things to be concerned about, but they’re not something we can know the answers to right now without the study. I think we realistically need answers to these questions that come from a rigorous academic study.”

Becerra sees it differently.

“I think maybe one can infer that [the study] would obviously lead to the implementation of proctoring,” he said. “And we just didn’t want anything to do with proctoring.”

After the Undergraduate Senate voted against the revised honor code, the Faculty Senate took matters into its own hands. It passed, in a split vote, a resolution brought forth by mathematics professor Richard Taylor that would allow instructors to begin proctoring exams next semester—unless the Undergraduate Senate reverses its decision and approves the revised honor code.

Essentially, the new proposal said students must agree to a study of proctoring or face potential proctoring starting next year.

Dubbed the “nuclear option” by some faculty, the move shocked the Undergraduate Senate as well as some faculty senators, who expressed unease about the body’s apparent abandonment of shared governance. But Faculty Senate members found research showing precedent for faculty amending the honor code without the input of the other governing bodies.

“The Academic Secretary’s Office did extensive historical and legislative research to determine whether the Faculty has the authority to change the Honor Code. Senate staff also conferred with the Office of General Counsel,” Faculty Senate chair Kenneth A. Schultz, a political science professor, said in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “Based on this, we concluded that the faculty have this authority. In fact, it was the Faculty alone that originally enacted the Honor Code.”

Undergraduate senators expressed a sense of betrayal, questioning why they were asked to approve the proposal in the first place if their vote didn’t matter.

“We thought as representatives of [undergraduate] students, of individuals who are going to be effected by this honor code, we thought we had a say in this,” Becerra said. “We thought that our voices were going to have some weight.”

Re-Evaluating Academic Integrity Policies

In response to the rapidly changing culture of academic dishonesty on campus, in 2019 C-12 was charged with providing recommendations for updating the university’s honor code and student judicial charter, the latter of which was first implemented in 1997.

The ever-increasing availability and variety of technology has forced Stanford and many institutions of higher education to re-evaluate their academic integrity policies. Can students use Google during take-home exams? How much, if at all, can they use ChatGPT when writing essays? Does it make sense to prohibit group work in the classroom when so many workplaces depend on open-source collaboration?

“It’s not just here. All over the country, the difficulties of how to manage learning and academic integrity in the face of artificial intelligence technology is a huge challenge,” said Brian Conrad, a professor of mathematics at Stanford who also served as the honor code subcommittee chair for C-12.

But as one of very few universities where the honor code still requires teachers to exit the room while students take tests, Stanford faces unique challenges. While students have grown accustomed to the freedom that unproctored exams grant them, instructors argue that they’ve taken advantage of that trust; incidents of cheating and failure to report infractions by fellow students, as the honor code dictates, are rampant, they say. Only two of the 720 honor code violations reported at Stanford between 2018 and 2020 came from students, according to the university.

Berg, the chemistry graduate student, favors proctoring precisely because he has witnessed so much cheating in his courses.

“No one respects the honor code in its current form—not graduate students, not faculty, not undergraduates,” he said, adding that cheating has become “part of the fabric of the university.”

The other universities that still ban proctoring are dealing with similar pushes to adapt their honor codes—though not all coming from the faculty side. At Middlebury College, which in 2014 allowed its economics department to begin proctoring exams, the student newspaper this week published an editorial calling for the end of the honor code due to its ineffectiveness; two-thirds of Middlebury students admitted to breaking the code in the college’s annual student survey.

Holly Tatum, a psychology professor at Randolph College in Virginia who has studied honor codes, believes that students may be less motivated than previous generations to follow the traditional rules of academic honesty, such as working alone on individual assignments.

“I believe that there may be some cultural shift going on right now that is changing how students perceive honor and integrity,” she said. “I sometimes think of this generation as the ‘group work’ group of students.”

An Inside Higher Ed Student Voice survey from December 2021 found that students’ views of using technology to help with assignments differed starkly from traditional academic integrity standards. Nearly half of respondents—47 percent—said using a study website to look up answers for homework or a test was fully or partially acceptable. And 53 percent said the same about googling answers to homework assignments. A smaller but not insignificant share, 17 percent, said it was fully or partially acceptable to use forbidden technologies or tools during an online exam.

Seeking Compromise

Faculty and graduate students are eager to reach some sort of agreement with undergraduates that will allow the proctoring study to move forward, rather than automatically introduce proctoring in the fall. But so far, it seems unlikely; according to the minutes of last Tuesday’s Undergraduate Senate meeting, there was no revote on the proposed changes to the honor code; instead, student senators reiterated their view that the Faculty Senate’s resolution violated the principles of shared governance.

The members of C-12 always knew the proposal would be a tough sell. After all, their charge, according to Jamie Fine, a sixth-year graduate student and the student co-chair of the body, was to “broker a compromise between five sometimes very diametrically opposed stakeholder groups.”

The committee’s research—which included outreach to students, instructors and other institutions of higher education—indicated that there was resistance among students to the idea of proctoring, but it wasn’t universal. Just under half the students they spoke to said they were against proctoring, though members stressed they did not conduct a scientific study.

In addition to the Undergraduate Senate’s arguments, students noted that the majority of honor code violations don’t take place during exams, making proctoring a relatively ineffective solution to cheating concerns, according to C-12’s final report, issued last month.

But some students said they favored proctoring, noting that it would be convenient to have a professor or teaching assistant in the room during exams to answer questions. It would also eliminate the responsibility of students to monitor one another during exams and afford students the opportunity to fight accusations of cheating in the moment.

Fine said this feedback, as well as the feedback from instructors, is what led C-12 to suggest a proctoring study.

“A big reason why we have the [study] is exactly because of what we heard from different stakeholder groups, in terms of wanting to see change and wanting to see change that was meaningful” rather than a “knee-jerk” reaction to Stanford’s academic dishonesty problems, she said.

Other changes to the honor code included new text and definitions aimed at clarifying the responsibilities of both students and professors.

The committee also proposed significant changes to the student judicial charter—namely to replace what has been referred to as a “one-size-fits-all” judicial system, in which students must undergo the same process regardless of the suspected violation, with a new, tiered approach based on the seriousness of the violation, past offenses and other factors. The new charter will also center education, rather than punishment, for offenders.

The changes to the judicial charter—which were approved by all five bodies, including President Marc Tessier-Lavigne—are designed in part to ensure that a single dumb mistake, or even a misunderstanding of what constitutes academic dishonesty, does not follow a student forever, Conrad said.

C-12 won’t be involved in whatever comes next for proctoring at Stanford. But Conrad said he hopes the committee’s years of hard work, outreach and research will ultimately have an impact.

“I certainly would hope whatever the final outcomes are of the discussions around the honor code, the part of our work that gave rise to these suggestions can at least be looked at by some university body in whatever form that might take, to improve the culture of academic integrity,” he said.

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