Debate over evidentiary standards and a proposal by the Office of the Student Advocate marked Tuesday afternoon’s University Assembly meeting, as the ongoing code of conduct revision process resumed.
A re-examination of the code of conduct, a document that guides Cornell’s judicial proceedings, has been a top priority of the assembly — as well as President Martha E. Pollack — since the beginning of April.
The Codes and Judicial Committee, the U.A. commission in charge of creating preliminary code revisions, had voted to reduce the standard of evidence needed to find a respondent “responsible” in Cornell judicial proceedings. U.A. members had pushed back at last Tuesday’s U.A. meeting, calling the change “an invitation to bias” and “a huge move away from due process”
The CJC had come to a compromise in their past meeting, according to chair Joe Anderson ’20, by requiring a “bifurcated system,” where administrative boards — responsible for determining sanctions for students — and hearings would have different evidentiary standards.
The administrative boards would operate under the “preponderance of evidence,” which means that the burden of proof is met when the evidence convinces the boards that it is more likely than not that the infraction occurred
The hearings, on the other hand, would need evidence that is “clear and convincing,” a higher standard than preponderance of evidence.
Logan Kenney J.D. ’21, a graduate and professional students representative, noted that the reduction in evidentiary standards “has been spoken about the most and [is] the thing that the community is most upset about,” citing the code’s public comments.
Complicating this debate was a presentation by the Office of Student Advocate, introduced to the U.A. by outlining a number of recommendations for the code changes, calling for increased student representation in the judicial process, mandatory diversity and inclusion training as well as an emphasis on “restorative justice,” rather than “punitive sanctions.”
This presentation was accompanied by a letter of support signed by over 30 student leaders.
Also presented by Student Advocate Liel Sterling ’21 was a proposal to open up the membership of Judicial Codes Counselors — law school student advisors that help students navigate judicial proceedings — to graduate and undergraduate students, as well as support for the reduction of the evidentiary standard.
These last two points prompted further heated debate.
James Pinchak ’18 J.D. ’21, a JCC, agreed with the idea of “restorative justice,” but was “surprised” that students supported a plan that could compromise their outcomes in judicial proceedings.
“Where are the students who think that it should be easier to get in trouble with the code?” Pinchak asked, disputing that the OSA plan was part of a student consensus.
U.A. members had other concerns as well. Risa Leiberwitz, labor and employment law, questioned why the OSA proposal was introduced so late in the code revision process, calling the suddenness of the proposals “inappropriate.”
Kenney echoed Leiberwitz’s point, saying that the OSA’s relationship with the Student Assembly had confused Anderson’s role as both CJC chair — which is not meant to have an active role in determining code revisions — and Student Assembly president.
“It’s very hard to take that seriously and feel like the CJC is being adequately represented and the students that want the ‘clear and convincing’ standard are represented,” Kenney said, adding that if the OSA proposal is considered, so should similar proposals from the rest of Cornell’s shared governance organizations.
“I think that’s very assumptious about my position,” Anderson shot back. “I took [the CJC chair] wanting to change the code of conduct at the beginning of the semester and I wanted to make it work.”
This meeting was the last before the U.A. finally votes on the revised code on May 12. The next step for the code process is a CJC public forum on code revisions on Thursday, May 7 from 3 to 4 p.m. Public comments on the code can also be shared online.
“It is time to move forward with code revisions,” wrote Pollack in an email sent to the U.A. obtained by The Sun, noting that the code process had been in the works for almost two years. “Putting this off would mean essentially starting anew, something we do not have time for.”
Correction, May 6 1:21 p.m.: A previous version of this story stated that Prof. Risa Lieberwitz as a member of the University Assembly and said that the next U.A. meeting is on May 13; Lieberwitz is a member of the Codes and Judicial Committee, not the U.A., and the next U.A. meeting is on May 12, not May 13. It has since been updated.