In the days after the protestors stormed the stage of Jim Gilchrist's Oct. 4 speech, one question loomed large: how, if at all, would the students be punished?
The answer was about more than just whether or not a handful of students would be suspended or asked to leave the University-the disciplinary procedures spoke to the way Columbia administrators understood the events that unfolded in early October. Some felt that a harsh penalty would suggest the University wanted to make a statement that students who interrupted speakers would not be tolerated at Columbia, while a more lenient treatment would mean the University was sympathetic towards the students' actions.
As students began to receive letters notifying them that they were under investigation, it became clear that the University would use the Rules of University Conduct to assess disciplinary options. The rules, which are the highest level of disciplinary proceedings at Columbia, govern the conduct of all University members at protests, pickets, and other types of rallies on Columbia property.
However, questions still remained-would storming the stage and unfurling a banner be considered a serious violation or a simple one? The distinction was key: students who commit simple violations are assessed under Dean's Discipline, while students who commit violations that are considered serious have the option to choose between Dean's Discipline and a formal proceeding before a hearing officer.
These differences between the two paths of disciplinary procedures have come up as students and administrators grapple with the past and future of a complicated system.
According to Barnard history professor and Columbia University historian Robert McCaughey, the University did not have a discipline system that dealt specifically with protests until the 1960s. Instead, the University used Dean's Discipline for all proceedings. In these hearings, deans of the various undergraduate colleges were responsible for handling students accused of infractions.
"The administration wasn't focused on the undergraduates," he said. "They thought this system was simpler and more controllable."
But while he said few students complained about the system, the disciplinary framework had its problems.
"It wasn't that the system was harsh," McCaughey said. "It was undependable and more easily manipulated."
That changed in the late 1960s, when deans began seeing more politically-motivated infractions, which were, by their nature, more difficult for the deans to handle.
The issue came to a head in 1968 when student protests over the construction of a gym in Morningside Park with separate entrances for community members and students rocked the University.
The sheer size of the demonstrations and the number of students protesting overwhelmed the administration. In the following months, Columbia's administration worked to develop a system that would both involve students and administrators and create a concrete method for dealing with offenders.
The structure they eventually created-the Rules of University Conduct-allowed students who were prosecuted for certain infractions the opportunity to go before a board.
Francis Da Cruz, a former Columbia student who now works for the University as a director for Communications Software, was one of the students who protested in the 1968 riots. He said that while the University may have moved to try and clean up the disciplinary system after the protests, he and other students were not interested in their efforts.
"At some point, the dean and some other officials came down and told us to stop or we'd be in trouble," he said. "We didn't stop."
Da Cruz, who was later suspended for a semester, said even after he was punished through Dean's Discipline, he didn't much care about the system. For him, no matter what the punishment, his actions were worth it. He said he couldn't even remember a change in policy.
"All this bureaucratic stuff," he said, "I didn't pay much attention to it."
Despite the effort that went into writing the Rules, they are very rarely used at Columbia. They were last employed after the student hunger strike in 1996, when several students refused to eat for several days to convince the administration to create the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.
Much more common is Dean's Discipline, which addresses violations of both academic and behavioral policies and is implemented regardless of whether the student's conduct occurred on or off campus. During Dean's Discipline, at least two administrators hear the accused student's testimony and determine whether or not the student is guilty. If he or she is deemed so, the deans choose a punishment, which can range from censure to expulsion. Students have an opportunity to appeal the ruling.
"The ultimate goal of the Dean's Discipline process is to help students understand how their actions have impacted their own life," Morgan Levy, assistant dean of judicial affairs, wrote in an e-mail. "When students appear at a hearing demonstrating that they understand what they did wrong and are willing to make amends to the community for their actions, their perspective is taken into consideration when considering sanctions."
A hearing under the Rules of University Conduct is only offered to students when they are accused of a "serious" infraction. Then, they may choose to be tried under Dean's Discipline or the Rules of University Conduct. Some administrators said they think the option is useful for students.
"They give accused students the option of two sets of procedures," said Roger Lehecka, a retired Columbia dean who now works for the Office of University Development and Alumni Relations. "They [the rules] are helpful in that students feel they have a chance to choose a path."
Marsha Wagner, a Columbia Ombuds officer said that some students have come to her with concerns about the disciplinary procedures at the University. However, she said that it is difficult to tell whether those concerns are legitimate.
"It's hard to say," Wagner said. "When someone gets a [traffic] ticket, they're dissatisfied for various reasons. Does that mean it's a bad traffic regulation, or that the process wasn't fair?"
John Davisson contributed to this article.