The University Hearing Board said on Wednesday that Mitch McBride '17 did not violate the Campus Code of Conduct when he shared internal working group documents with The Sun.

Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

The University Hearing Board said on Wednesday that Mitch McBride '17 did not violate the Campus Code of Conduct when he shared internal working group documents with The Sun.

April 20, 2017

Hearing Board Clears Cornell Student Who Leaked Documents

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A hearing board of five Cornellians determined on Wednesday night that a student did not violate the Campus Code of Conduct when he shared internal working group documents with The Sun, concluding a case that thrust the campus judicial process into the spotlight.

The Office of the Judicial Administrator accused Mitch McBride ’17 in March of violating two sections of the Code by sharing internal documents from the Admissions and Financial Aid Working Group with The Sun that showed the University was considering a host of measures to reduce its burden of providing financial aid.

Those charges, after they were first reported in The Sun this week, brought sharp rebukes from several faculty members, including one Law School professor who helped revise the Code a decade ago and said the University was attempting to “stretch the Code” to encompass actions that it does not cover.

The University Hearing Board — composed of three students, one faculty member and one staff member — spent hours listening to arguments from McBride and Associate Judicial Administrator Christina Liang as well as witness testimony from eight witnesses, including the accused student.

Members of the board, including the chair, Prof. Timothy DeVoogd, who does not vote, deliberated for 30 minutes in 163 Day Hall before determining that McBride had not violated either section of the Code.

“There was a strong sense of the Hearing Board that the particular actions of Mr. McBride were wrong, but not covered by the Code,” DeVoogd said after reading the verdict.

The UHB is a group of five formed by randomly selecting from the 45 members of the University Hearing and Review Boards.

Neither party can appeal a ruling of “not responsible,” according the Campus Code of Conduct. Liang declined to comment after the ruling was announced.

Because the UHB did not impose a penalty and because the University was the complainant in the case, “the decision of the UHB for this incident is final,” Judicial Administrator Michelle Horvath said in an email.

“The university will respect the long-standing University Hearing and Review Boards processes,” John Carberry, director of media relations, said in a statement earlier this week. He added that the release of internal documents “is detrimental to the stakeholder process and limits the ability of the university to investigate all possible policy options.”

Wednesday’s arguments largely centered around whether the documents McBride shared with The Sun were confidential and, if so, whether sharing confidential documents falls under a section of the Code that the OJA argued makes it a violation to “misuse” documents.

McBride was charged with two sections of the code: One makes it a violation “To forge, fraudulently alter, willfully falsify, or otherwise misuse University or non-University documents” and the other compels students “to comply with any lawful order of a clearly identifiable University official acting in the performance of his or her duties.”

The Hearing Board’s ruling means its members chose to narrowly define the phrase, “otherwise misuse University documents,” apparently heeding McBride’s argument that any wide interpretation could lead to a slippery slope.

As for the accusation that McBride failed to comply with a “lawful order,” it seemed that in the end, the OJA could not prove that McBride was definitively told to keep the documents private, and even so, it was not clear that such an order from Dean Barbara Knuth, who chaired the working group, would have been a lawful order.

Knuth ignored two reporters’ questions when she walked through Day Hall moments after the verdict was announced.

Mitch McBride '17 stands with his lawyer, Alan Sash, left, in Day Hall, where the University Hearing Board cleared him of both charges on Wednesday.

Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

Mitch McBride ’17 stands with his lawyer, Alan Sash, left, in Day Hall, where the University Hearing Board cleared him of both charges on Wednesday.

During the hearing, Knuth testified that she had “made it clear that the documents [were] for consideration by members” of the working group and were “considered private and confidential.”

Asked by one of the members of the UHB how sure she was that she had told McBride the documents were confidential, Knuth said, “I’m positive.”

The 43 leaked pages were from a February draft report discussing potential cost-saving measures for Cornell to “fairly address need across socioeconomic groups.”

The report showed that the working group was reviewing nine potential measures, including admitting more international students who did not require financial aid, graduating students with more debt and considering transfer students’ financial needs during the admissions process.

Knuth said on Wednesday that it was vital internal documents be kept private so members of the working group would feel comfortable proposing a wide range of ideas and because “we don’t want our competitor schools to know what our specific processes are for administering financial aid.”

McBride reiterated at the hearing what he had previously told The Sun, that he shared the documents because he thought the community should be involved in the working group’s decisions, which could potentially have vast implications for how admissions and financial aid are handled.

“I believed that even though it was the ostensible goal of the committee to promote fairness, the way Dean Knuth defined that to the committee was that the highest income brackets were paying too much and have too high a burden,” McBride said, claiming that Knuth believed richer students’ burdens “should be reduced and the burden would be transferred to the poorer students and that would make the system more fair.”

Knuth directly contradicted this account, telling the UHB that “McBride was arguing [for] less generous aid for our lowest-income families and our students from underrepresented minority populations.”

Asked about Knuth’s comments, McBride’s attorney, Alan Sash, called it a “[BS] gig” intended to divert the UHB away from the issue of whether the senior violated the Code.

The testimony of the other six witnesses, five current students and one recent graduate, formed a picture of a somewhat casual atmosphere surrounding the working group, with some members saying Knuth told them the draft documents were confidential and some saying they were never told as much. All witnesses testified that there was a general understanding that the documents should remain private.

Gabe Kaufman ’18, chair of the University Assembly and a member of the working group, testified that McBride’s release of the documents may have caused “fundamental damage” to “the relationship between the student body and administration.”

Nonetheless, Kaufman made it clear that he and the other working group members never signed any confidentiality agreements, adding that he did not remember being told that the documents were confidential or to keep information from the working group confidential.

As McBride awaited the verdict in a quiet hallway, he grew more and more concerned that the UHB would rule against him. He said the questions board members asked, which largely focused on why he felt compelled to disclose the documents rather than the definition of the Code, concerned him the most.

When the verdict was read shortly after 9:30 p.m., however, he celebrated with his attorney as well as Judicial Codes Coordinator Kendall Karr, a law student who made McBride’s case during the hearing. Sash was allowed to sit in the room for the hearing but was forbidden from addressing the UHB.

“This is all I’ve been thinking about for a month,” said McBride, who has been accepted into Georgetown Law and was worried about the impact a guilty verdict could have on his burgeoning legal career.

“This has taught me a lesson that people in power need to be held to account, and I think that law is the mechanism to do it,” he said.

Prof. Timothy DeVoogd, the non-voting chair of the University Hearing Board, stands at the door of 163 Day Hall, where the hearing took place.

Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

Prof. Timothy DeVoogd, the non-voting chair of the University Hearing Board, stands at the door of 163 Day Hall, where the hearing took place.

Immediately after the ruling, McBride called his parents, who he said first found out he had been cleared by following The Sun’s live blog of the proceedings.

“They were just so happy,” he said. “They’ve been worrying about this constantly, too. It’s just been hard on my whole family.”

The public hearing on Wednesday was the first in recent memory for many involved in the campus judicial process, and may be one of only a handful of times a hearing has been made public. The open nature shed light on the campus judicial procedure, leading many students and faculty to claim that the OJA was overreaching in its prosecution.

Prof. Kevin Clermont, law, was a member of the team that revised the Code in 2007 and 2008 and previously told The Sun that neither of the provisions McBride is accused of violating apply to the circumstances of his case.

“Cornell is trying to stretch the Code to reach behavior that the Code does not cover,” he said.

Prof. William Jacobson, law, said after the verdict that he was “glad the Board took seriously its obligation to enforce the Code as written, not as the administration wished it had been written.”

Cornell and the OJA’s actions “put at risk an innocent person’s reputation and career,” Jacobson said in an email. “Some self-reflection is in order at Day Hall.”

Students piled into a second-floor room of Uris Hall on Wednesday afternoon where the hearing was broadcast live to a group of 60 people. Dozens more filled the hallway outside, waiting for others to give up their spots.

The streamed audio was of poor quality and the UHB ultimately reversed its initial position, allowing two reporters to sit in the Day Hall room during the trial.

Renee Alexander '74, associate dean of students, left, converses with a student in Uris Hall, where the public hearing was streamed live.

Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

Renee Alexander ’74, associate dean of students, left, converses with David Outlaw ’17 in Uris Hall, where the public hearing was streamed live.

Inside Uris Hall, Matthew Battaglia ’16, chair of the University Assembly Codes and Judicial Committee, and others argued that the hearing should have been held in a room that could accommodate all members of the public.

“I think that it’s absolutely appropriate to raise a procedural objection that we are not following the rules that have been set out on campus,” said Joel Cisne, the administrative chair of the UHRB who had the unenviable task of acting as a liaison between the Uris Hall viewing room and the Day Hall proceedings.

Christian Brickhouse ’17 asked how “public” was being defined by the OJA, “considering we are in a separate room where we can’t hear, we won’t be provided transcripts, and may or may not be allowed to broadcast [the proceedings] outside of this room, where only 60 people can be.”

“It is certainly not a public hearing,” added Aravind Natarajan, grad, who called the set-up an “absolute disappointment.”

“Everybody is definitely disappointed,” Natarajan said during one of the breaks. “People came here to understand what’s happening … and we’ve certainly made no progress in that direction.”

“I’ve been involved in student government at Cornell since 2010 and this is the single worst abuse of power that I have ever witnessed,” said Paul Berry, grad. “The procedures and policies of this institution are rotten and in desperate need of reform.”

Matters gradually improved when the audio quality was adjusted and the Graduate Professional Student Assembly and Student Assembly subsidized pizza for the attendees.

The rowdiest moment of the night came when Kaufman testified and, asked by Liang to describe his relationship with McBride, said the two were “former friends.” Every future inquiry about a witness’s relationship to McBride drew snickers from the Uris Hall crowd.

Only about 10 people were left in the room when the decision was announced, five hours after the hearing began, and most celebrated the verdict.

Prof. Richard Bensel, government, a member of the Faculty Senate and an outspoken critic of the case against McBride, stood outside of the hearing room in Day Hall at the beginning of the procedure and, after the verdict, said the ruling was “a confirmation of good sense and justice.”

“But the conduct of the OJA in attempting to disable the defense by attempting to deny the assistance of counsel, prohibit the testimony of defense witnesses, and close the hearing to the public,” Bensel added in an email, “is simply inexcusable in an open university community that welcomes and, in fact, utterly depends on the presentation of contrary and competing opinions.”

The OJA had previously objected to McBride calling Clermont, the law professor who helped revise the code, as a witness, and Chair DeVoogd upheld that decision.

About 60 students watched the public hearing from 202 Uris Hall, but the stream was plagued with poor audio quality for the first hour or so.

Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

About 60 students watched the public hearing from 202 Uris Hall, but the stream was plagued with poor audio quality for the first hour or so.

Prof. Elizabeth Sanders, government, said the prosecution “was a travesty from start to finish.”

“The charges were absurd and should never have been brought,” she wrote in an email after the verdict. “The fact that they denied entry to Prof. Clermont, an expert and contributing author of the Code, indicates a remarkable level of arrogance and vindictiveness.”

“We must work to reform the JA process and the irresponsible power of Cornell officials who do not believe in anything approaching shared governance, free speech, or democratic process,” Sanders said.

Karr, who argued successfully for McBride during the hours-long proceeding, said there are many improvements that should be made to the campus judicial system.

“Hopefully, any errors or things that are problematic [in the Code] can be addressed in the future through all of the parties that interact with the Code,” Karr said.

McBride acknowledged after the proceedings that as the hearing continued into the night, he became more nervous and, because of the UHB members’ comments, thought the Hearing Board would find him responsible.

“They were saying what I did was so wrong and I didn’t think the Code was being talked about,” he said.

“Even if people think what I did was wrong, … the Code does not apply.”

McBride, hugging and high-fiving friends in Day Hall shortly after 10 p.m., said he felt vindicated.

“I’m just finally glad that the Code is upheld,” he said. “That’s the vindication.”

  • alum’14

    Is there any group that hasn’t been insulted and belittled and wrongfully attacked by Cornell’s current leadership? Faculty told to shut up and sit down with their silly claims of shared governance or that their voice in the creation of a new college should actually matter…undergraduates attacked for speaking up against everything from corporate power to the type of closed door, secretive planning sessions that we teach leads to terrible decision-making…graduate students stymied in their attempts to improve their rights and living standards by an administration that doesn’t seem to grasp the most basic concepts taught at their own labor relations program.

    Exactly how badly do Cornell administrators have to mess up before they are sent back down to the offices and classrooms where they belong?

  • Sickened alum

    We all owe a debt of gratitude to Mitch McBride for his willingness to stand up to the arrogant administration that attempted to browbeat him into pleading guilty to non-existent offenses and then keep secret the proceedings against him. Thanks also to Professor Kevin Clermont and other professors who called out the JA for its distorted and indefensible reading of the Campus Code of Conduct and to the Daily Sun for covering this sad chapter in Cornell’s history. The most tragic thing about this sordid episode is that it is small potatoes compared to the Star Chamber Title IX process at Cornell. I do not mean to minimize the sanction facing McBride, but the unfortunate students who fall prey to the ideologues in the Title IX office are looking at far worse: expulsion and a permanent transcript notation. The Daily Sun has done an admirable job of shining a light on the Kafkaesque experience facing any poor student accused of sexual assault, including its recent article about the anti-male discrimination that caused a student to attempt suicide. One wonders whether a victim of the Title IX office has to succeed in a suicide attempt before someone in Day Hall wakes up and realizes that there is a real problem. In the past I have contributed generously when Cornell came calling for money. Until the administration cleans up its act, I will find other charitable causes. I hope other alumni do the same.

  • Disappointed alum

    Those in power should have to face what they perpetrated on Mitch McBride; i.e., they themselves should face “prosecution” and the possible loss of their careers. Let them sweat over whether they’ll be found guilty or not. Maybe then they’ll have more empathy and understanding of what they put others through.

  • Knuthin Doin

    There is an additional story here based on the testimony of Dean Knuthin’ to see here. She testified that the reason that it was important to keep the information confidential was to keep the financial information from peer schools. And, if that was true, it would certainly be a good reason to keep information confidential. Any institution ‘s confidential information should be kept confidential. So, take that testimony at face value. She was distributing information that was VERY IMPORTANT to keep confidential. And what did she do with it? She, at best, made casual statements about keeping it private and failed to tell numerous people to keep the information confidential at all. There is not a shred of testimony, other than Knuthin’s testimony, that she explained that there was a legitimate business reason to keep the information confidential. If she is taken at face value then, she distributed critical University information and failed to take any reasonable steps to keep the information confidential. At virtually any company or institution, if a senior person dumped trade secret information out without precautions, they would be fired. I would agree that if she had each member sign an agreement that she was distributing information that needed to stay confidential for institutional reasons, and a student violated that agreement and injured the university, it would be a code violation. But, she didn’t take those steps.

    What is the alternate possibility? That there was no trade secret information, that her hushed requests to keep it private were political, and that she lied at the hearing in order to support her claim that the students were bound by confidentiality.

    The Sun should fully investigate whether her testimony was truthful or she was incompetent. I don’t see a middle ground.

  • FireKnuth

    And now Knuth getting fired would be the perfect happy ending!

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  • I totally agree that “the particular actions of Mr. McBride were wrong, but not covered by the Code,” now the question is how to handle leaking–through policy or through the code.

    • Knuthin good is ever easy

      Why was it wrong? It seems simplistic to say that if the chairperson of a committee says she wants to keep things quiet you must listen to her. What if the discussion was overtly racist, or sexist, or violated the basic norms of the University, does a general sense that things should be hush hush mean that it is wrong to sound the alarm. That doesn’t sound very thoughtful to me. I am absolutely sure, that if the committee contemplated an action that involved removing financial aid from students from countries affected by the President’s immigration policy, and a student ran to the Sun, nobody would have blinked an eye or brought charges. The “wrongness” of this was driven, in the administration’s own view, by the “context” of the release. The administration felt aggrieved because their work was allegedly being criticized unfairly. That is why this is a free speech issue. It would have been very simple to formalize the confidentiality requirement and then McBride and others could have chosen to sign or not sign. That was not done, in my view, because it would have been an overt sign of secrecy.

      I don’t think a University should be a place where informal agreements to keep difficult subjects quiet are automatically followed. But then again, I can’t think of another University administration that would so openly and freely humiliate itself by pursuing an openly an obviously frivolous action to intimidate and crush students and dissenters.

      Sad.

  • Big Red alumnus

    Cornell throws students under the bus with the best of them. Its treatment of Cornell students who participate in the Greek system is rife with overreaching, zealous enforcement, disproportionate penalties, and harmful delays, and that’s on a good day.

  • Alum

    Let’s be clear: while I think the hearing board made the right decision here, in the age of the internet McBridge is likely forever tainted. I’d never hire someone who feels they have a “duty” to leak information to the press.

    • Melissa

      You’d have fit in well at Enron.

  • Paul G. Berry

    Dear Cornell Community,

    If you’d like to show your support for restoring credibility and integrity to Cornell University, please consider joining us at Impeach the Dean.

    “Dean” Knuth’s behavior has been unacceptable and completely inconsistent with the values of any university. And this is not the first incident: in 2014 Knuth covered up an investigation into Cornell by the NYS Workers Comp board & violated all sorts of labor laws in our union election just three weeks ago.

    Grads, undergrads, faculty, and alums: I hope you’ll consider joining forces to help take the first step toward rebuilding Cornell after such an egregious admin overreach.

    Join us at:
    https://www.facebook.com/KnuthOutBeforeGraduation/

    Sincerely,
    Paul G. Berry
    Grad ’17

  • Ockie Milkwood

    Ha, ha. The mites biting each other. Look at these comments! How does it feel finding yourself trapped in dystopia, at 50 grand a year? Ha, ha.

    Cornell: No smoking, no joking. Whites and males not wanted. Back to the purge of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and Killing Fields of Cambodia. Heil!

    Orwell would have a field day.

    • Cornell ’06

      So sad there is so much hate in the hearts of people who have so much money. Step away from the keyboard. Impeach the power elite. Cooperative everything. Up with the people. There is nothing wrong w white men in general, but there is something wrong with white men feeling disadvantaged because they are no longer given complete control, and full undo privilege. For people who have had an unfair advantage for centuries, equality feels like disenfranchisement. Read “White Like Me” by Tim Wise to get a better sense. You say heil in your post. That’s so sad. You would rather batter and murder everyone else so you can have your false sense of superiority, than to join the rest of humanity on an even playing field.

  • Melissa

    There’s an inherent conflict of interest here. Administrators are essentially overhead. Nobody picks a school so they can have more contact with them. It’s the teaching that’s the experience / value of a school.

    So when you look at where the cost increases are coming g from, it’s typically from these parasite positions.

    So when their work to better extract money from student and their families are exposed, no wonder why they reacted so viciously. It exposes the craven treatment of students so that administrators can grow their ranks and feather their own nests.

    Cornell should change its name to United Airlines.

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