Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

Several faculty members said they were troubled by Cornell's charges against Mitch McBride '17, pictured at a Feb. 28 University Assembly meeting, for sharing documents with The Sun.

April 16, 2017

Faculty Fears ‘Chilling Effect’ After Cornell Charges Student for Sharing Documents

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Mitch McBride ’17 walked into Day Hall on March 8 determined to come clean regarding internal working group documents that were published in The Sun.

When Christina Liang, an associate judicial administrator, asked McBride whether he had shared the documents, he said yes.

Two days later, Liang sent a plea agreement to McBride, offering to find him “responsible” for violating two sections of the Campus Code of Conduct.

Under the plea agreement, McBride would be put on disciplinary probation for three weeks; would have to write two, five-page reflection papers; and would have to meet with Senior Vice Provost Barbara Knuth, who also serves as dean of the Graduate School.

But McBride rejected the agreement because of an additional provision of the deal: The Office of the Judicial Administrator would maintain a disciplinary record for McBride until 2023.

McBride, who has been accepted by Georgetown Law, worried that pleading responsible and having a reprimand on his record for six years could keep him out of his dream school.

Weighing on him even more, McBride said, is his belief that the University is trying to make an example out of him and that a plea of “responsible” would set a dangerous precedent.

Agreeing to the plea deal, in McBride’s mind, would mean giving in to an overzealous Judicial Administrator’s office and tacitly endorsing Cornell’s narrowing definition of free speech and freedom of the press on campus.

“The broader picture is very troubling,” McBride said in a recent interview.

At least three faculty members agree with McBride, telling The Sun they believe the OJA’s case against McBride is “ludicrous,” “unjustified” and “Kafkaesque.”

Judicial Administrator Michelle Horvath, in response to an inquiry from The Sun sent to her and Liang, referred to Cornell Media Relations. “We’ll decline comment at this time,” said John Carberry, director of media relations.

“I believed that, principally, the community needed to be involved before such a drastic decision was going to be made," McBride said of his decision to share documents with this newspaper.

Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

“I believed that, principally, the community needed to be involved before such a drastic decision was going to be made,” McBride said of his decision to share internal working group documents with this newspaper.

The University Hearing Board is scheduled to hear McBride’s case on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. in 163 Day Hall.

The hearing will be public, which McBride requested and the University opposed, resulting in a ruling in favor of McBride and the public hearing by UHB Chair Prof. Timothy DeVoogd.

In February, McBride shared draft documents with The Sun from the Admissions and Financial Aid Working Group, which he served on, showing that Cornell was considering viewing the financial needs of transfer students as part of the admissions process, graduating students with more debt and admitting more international students who do not require financial aid.

The 43 pages have been viewed nearly 4,000 times, according to Scribd, the document-hosting website.

“I believed that, principally, the community needed to be involved before such a drastic decision was going to be made that was going to change the mission of the university from ‘any person, any study’ to any rich person,” he said. “We need to be going the opposite direction.”

McBride receives no financial aid, he said, but thought that if the University was considering moving away from a solely merit-based system of admissions, students should be involved in that decision.

On March 16, less than a week after McBride rejected the plea deal, Liang, the associate judicial administrator, informed the senior that he was being charged with violating the Code, alleging that he disclosed confidential information to The Sun.

McBride told The Sun he knew Knuth wanted the documents to be kept confidential, but he said no working group members ever made any written or oral agreements to do so while he served on the task force, beginning in spring of 2016.

Senior Vice Provost Barbara Knuth chaired the working group on which McBride served and from which he shared documents with The Sun.

Adrian Boteanu / Sun Staff Photographer

Senior Vice Provost Barbara Knuth chaired the working group on which McBride served and from which he shared documents with The Sun.

The OJA charged McBride with violating two provisions of the Code. The first is a section under Title III of the Code that makes it a violation “To forge, fraudulently alter, willfully falsify, or otherwise misuse University or non-University documents” and the second, under Title IV, compels students “to comply with any lawful order of a clearly identifiable University official acting in the performance of his or her duties.”

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

“Cornell is trying to stretch the Code to reach behavior that the Code does not cover,” Clermont said in an email.

If “misuse” is read broadly to include sharing purportedly confidential documents, that interpretation “would simply set the provision adrift,” he said, adding that the “idea is that ‘misuse’ takes its meaning from forge, alter, and falsify.”

As for not complying with a University official’s lawful order, Clermont said that provision can only apply when the order is made “to maintain public order” because of the New York Education Law under which the provision was adopted.

“The conception that a Cornell administrator can simply ‘order’ students and faculty to do things would radically alter the society we live in,” Clermont said. “That reading is airtight. The J.A. cannot charge him under Title IV.”

Prof. Richard Bensel, government, a member of the Faculty Senate, proposed a resolution on Wednesday that would make “proceedings in which a senior administrator prosecutes a member of the Cornell community … open and public if the defendant requests that they be open and public,” The Sun previously reported.

Bensel told The Sun on Thursday that Knuth made the initial incident report to the OJA, resulting in the investigation. Knuth did not respond to two requests for comment last week.

“There is a real problem in having the senior vice provost prosecuting Mitch for what I think is a trivial, unimportant [matter],” Bensel said, adding that the OJA said “there was no evidence of harm” stemming from McBride’s sharing of the documents.

“The most important of my worries is the extremely chilling effect,” Bensel said. “To go out and stomp on [students] like you’re stomping on a rat is crazy — it just makes no sense to me — and it isn’t the kind of values this University should have.”

Prof. Elizabeth Sanders, government, has been following McBride’s case and said the OJA’s prosecution is “excessively punitive, heavy-handed, and unjustified.”

“We need to shine more light on university governance and to institute far-reaching reforms that will check autocratic power and open up decision-making on major policies to much broader participation and publicity,” Sanders said in an email.

“Things like this happen far too often at our university, and they reflect very poorly on an institution that ostensibly celebrates openness and creative thinking.”