The way in which Columbia handles student disciplinary issues has been an issue of concern for a while now. Both Columbia College and School of Engineering and Applied Science students accused of “behavioral or academic misconduct” have their cases handled through the Dean’s Discipline process administered by the Office of Judicial Affairs. The system, under current guidelines, fails to include student voices in the decision-making process, thereby undermining student interests and serving as a non-transparent yet highly powerful entity within our community.
The OJA, headed by Dean Jeri Henry, is a subdivision of the Office of Student Affairs. As the Dean’s Discipline process currently stands, students are alerted by email of their reported violations of school policy. A subsequent hearing is scheduled, if deemed necessary by the OJA. Hearings are administered by two staff members from the OJA or Student Affairs. Students are encouraged to prepare a statement but may not have any witnesses or representation in the hearing room with them (other than an academic adviser). Written witness testimony is sometimes accepted.
Resulting sanctions, decided upon by the OJA staff, can include warnings, probation, suspension, and expulsion. Students are allowed an appeal to the Dean of Student Affairs, but, again, this appeal is within the same system.
This means that students could be expelled without ever having their concerns heard by a peer. No student voice is involved in any part of the judicial process. When cases are about students, student perspective is not just valuable, but critical. Students live, study, and work full-time in the Columbia community. In other words, rule infringements perceived in one way by deans could most easily be seen very differently by students, who are in some ways closer to the Columbia experience.
The Dean’s Discipline process could only benefit from student perspectives.
As the largest stakeholders in undergraduate life, students must be given the opportunity to help regulate the community in which they live. While deans certainly bring long-term experience to the table, students bring current, dynamic knowledge that offers a more in-depth understanding of how life at Columbia truly operates.
Many of our peer institutions already have student-inclusive discipline systems in place. For example, for non-academic disciplinary issues, students at Princeton are referred to the Faculty-Student Committee on Discipline, which includes five undergraduate voting members in addition to faculty members and administrators. Students, together with faculty members, decide on the best course of action for their community. Similarly, the Executive Committee of Yale College, which handles all undergraduate disciplinary issues, is composed of three tenured faculty members, three untenured faculty members, and three undergraduates. Yale also allows for the appearance of student witnesses. Stanford’s Board on Judicial Affairs is composed of six student members appointed by their undergraduate senate, six faculty members, and four university administrators. The list goes on.
By bringing a diverse set of voices to the table, other institutions are able to make more informed decisions. Including students in administrative decisions is not seen as unnecessary—rather, a cooperative environment promotes a happier, healthier, more stable community.
The Dean’s Discipline process, in its closed-door, exclusive decision-making, does not encourage student trust but instead invites skepticism and uncertainty. Students are concerned about their fair treatment and due process. Students are concerned about their voices being heard in decisions that affect their community life.
Moving forward, action must be speedily taken to remedy our current judicial system. Student input in Dean’s Discipline sanctioning must be a priority. I would like to see students in OJA hearings, acting alongside administrators as voting members in the sanctioning process. Ideally, there would be an equal number of students and administrators, perhaps two of each. This ensures that student voices are truly effective, not simply symbolic. Additionally, accused parties must be allowed to bring relevant witnesses to OJA hearings (whether those be character witnesses or witnesses to alleged events). This would only give a fuller picture to disciplinary situations that would promote more accurate, thoughtful decisions on the part of the OJA.
Next semester, we can work with administrators to find a mutually agreeable solution—one that best serves Columbia’s needs. In this way, the OJA can become a positive source of regulation for Columbia undergraduates, and Columbia, too, can promote a happier, healthier, more stable community.
The author is a Columbia College first-year with prospective majors in Hispanic studies and political science. He is the president-elect for the class of 2017 council.
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