The campus is engaged in the incredibly important task of reviewing its Code of Conduct. How we proceed toward such a successful end could set an example for shared governance on campus in the years to come. While this requires the University’s leadership to promote a broad dialogue and greater transparency as well as to be willing to listen to all parties — a charge I welcome — it also places a special responsibility on campus representatives to resist the expedient in favor of what is important in the long run.
The current code is flawed and what is being proposed as a revision is unfinished. The University Assembly and its Codes and Judicial Committee have done a very commendable job, so far, in harnessing the views across campus and translating them into a set of recommendations, with most of which I agree. Their work, however, and mine are not done. My primary concern is the need to balance the rights of the accused, which dominate the current code, with the equally important rights of the victims, as well as the more general interests of the university itself.
I understand the need to maintain a level playing field between an individual accused of a violation of the code and the University. But I am just as worried about adequate protection afforded victims and accused to ensure that all have access to the same level of resources, including advice and counsel. Moreover, I am not yet satisfied that the proposal will redress a fundamental weakness of the current system. When you compare the average number of serious cases involving personal injuries, property damage and theft to the number of serious sanctions during the same period, the contrast is startling. These statistics suggest that the current Code may not, in fact, hold members of our community accountable for their behavior.
We have arrived at the penultimate phase of consideration of a new campus Code of Conduct, which was started when then-President Hunter R. Rawlings commissioned a comprehensive review of the Code in Nov. 2005, and that I continued when I asked the University Assembly to take on this issue in Nov. 2006. At the time, I laid out a process according to which I would review proposals that would emerge from a campus-wide discussion led by the University Assembly and, after consulting with my senior staff, would submit for further campus discussion what I was willing to propose to the Board of Trustees for its approval.
While accepting most of the Assembly’s recommendations, I did ask them to reconsider their proposals in those areas that I found deficient. And, to further expedite the process, I asked several of my staff to meet with the campus representatives to collaborate on crafting acceptable revisions that will serve the general welfare of the institution I am charged to lead and protect. I am hopeful that we will reach a result that addresses the needs of all and emphasizes, as much as possible in a disciplinary system, the University’s educational goals of contemplation and learning over confrontation and punishment.
I am ready and willing to listen to the views expressed across our campus as well as the considered opinion of all our colleagues who work hard as members of the assemblies on this and other issues of significance to the well being of our institution. Most of the time, I will act on the wisdom of the campus, as I have in the cases of the divestment from Darfur and the Presidents’ Climate Commitment. At other times though, we will need to work together to find an optimal solution. Shared governance works when both sides listen to each other and act in concert for the common good.
We should not let old fears about process obscure the fact that I value the results of shared governance, and that it is not good enough to replace a flawed Code with an incomplete one.
David J. Skorton is the President of Cornell University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. From David appears every month.