Posts Tagged ‘UW code of conduct’

A code of conduct for administrators

September 8, 2009

Did Montesquieu make a mistake when he left education out of his separation of powers doctrine? Or is education a nation in and of itself, deserving of the same separation of powers within its governance?

Ever since several unfortunate incidents involving beer cans put me on “non-academic probation” my freshman year, university misconduct policy has been an issue close to my heart. At the center of the question is how the university, which seeks to be an institution of education, should deal with its naughty students. Should it prosecute them in the same fashion as any other government entity would? Or should it operate more as, say, a high school, with discretion granted to administrators on how to deal with rule breakers?

The Board of Regents wanted to opt for the latter, arguing that recent revisions to the Code of Conduct were made to make the process “more educational and less adversarial.” It’s the same argument that was used several years ago to authorize calls home to parents for certain behaviors. Predictably the administrators, who of course had their voices heard in the New York TImes article on the matter, emphasized certain cases: students who went to detox on several occasions and/or had emotional issues that had to be addressed through counseling. They didn’t mention the students like me, who were never caught in a dangerous state but had nevertheless been found in violation of the regulations.

With the conduct changes, the university is arguing that certain attempts to cut back on a student’s right to legal representation during disciplinary hearings actually helps the student by making the process co-operative instead of combative. Instead of you vs. us, it becomes us working together for your benefit. For instance, working together to find a constructive solution…such as suspension or expulsion.

Does such absurdity exist at such high levels or education? It harkens back to The Giver, in which a utopian society calmly and rationally determines that sometimes the best option for a person is to be “released.” No, I’m not drawing a death-panel analogy – this isn’t an Ann Althouse comment section.

I recently talked with Prof. Donald Downs, the president of the UW Committee on Academic Freedom and Rights. Downs was an outspoken opponent of restrictions on legal representation and worked with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to get necessary protections for due process into the updated code. FIRE’s website boasts of the protections it won UW students on its website:

FIRE successfully lobbied the University of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents to restore basic due process rights for students, such as the option of a hearing before a committee including student peers, attorney representation in the case of serious allegations, and both e-mail and paper notification of proceedings.

Downs still cites problem with the existing code, including a vague definition of off-campus conduct that is worthy of university disciplinary action. The code states that any behavior that threatens a substantial “university interest” can be punished. What does that mean? Is this going to become a form of double-jeopardy for students that get drinking tickets in the city? Why is this necessary?  I was frankly surprised to hear that Downs did not necessarily oppose the university’s decision to regulate off-campus behavior this way.

The university hardly needs additional powers to punish off campus crimes. There are appropriate legal structures for that. A municipal crime will be dealt with by the city, which will likely hand out a punishment that fits (or goes beyond) the crime. If it fails to do so, then welcome to democracy – sometimes the bad guys get off. The only argument that is convincing is that the legal process is long and cumbersome – that some problems need to be addressed sooner. To clarify,  that should only apply if, for instance, the safety of a student, faculty or staff member is in danger. The the university should be able to take temporary measures, such as suspension pending hearing or a restraining order etc.

But the university has no reason to pursue all the infractions it no doubt intends to, including victimless crimes like underage drinking. In an email sent to UW administrators, Dean of Students Richard Egly expressed disappointment because somebody had changed the standard necessary for university action from “serious OR repeated” to “serious and repeated.” This means he would have liked the university to address repeated instances of something completely unrelated to UW, such as underage drinking.

With sentiments like that floating around the UW disciplinary community, it’s hard to trust that those in authoritative positions won’t abuse their power and seek to micro-manage off campus behavior, especially among underage students. They’re simply asking us to trust them, and for a state school that is supposed to be open to everyone, such flexible standards just don’t cut it. Downs (perhaps the only professor on campus to contribute to Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign) gave me an interesting quote about the new policy:

“Like President Reagan said regarding the Soviet Union in arms control, “Trust, but verify.”

That quote is perhaps the most concise description of a good system of government. A system in which citizens have faith in their government, but are granted the additional comfort of knowing their government’s power to behave badly is limited by a strict system of rules. Thanks Ronnie – or whatever movie star you stole that quote from.

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New code of conduct for UW

September 3, 2009

Watch out troublemakers. Not only for my column in tomorrow’s Herald, which will instruct you on how to legally make trouble in the dorms (only good, safe trouble), but for the new code of conduct approved by the University of Wisconsin System board of regents.

Under the revised code, off-campus student misconduct does not need to be criminal to be punishable by the university. UW-Madison also gained the authority to sanction students in a manner independent of any ongoing criminal investigations.

Berquam said the precise meaning of the controversial “substantial university interest” standard had not been settled, even though the change is already in effect.

At least Berquam is being honest. Nevertheless, this is a sad day for student rights. Campus officials seem incredulous that students would demand strict standards for a discipline policy, such as rules governing what students can be punished for and how. They expect students to simply trust them.

The university is a governing institution. It should be expected to act like one. It oversees over 40,000 students as well as thousands of faculty and staff members. The good will of a motherly dean does not suffice when it comes to dolling out sanctions that could be as serious as suspension or expulsion.

However, what is equally important is the prospects of double-jeopardy posed to many students who get in trouble with the city, mainly because of underage drinking. Once kids are out of the dorms they should be free of that overbearing fear of having their educational future threatened because they get caught with a beer.