Cornell University is currently amending its campus code of conduct, one goal being to make the disciplinary process more “educational.” The Codes and Judicial Committee is an arm of the University Assembly and was tasked with amending the code. On Friday evening, Cornell President Martha E. Pollack emailed the chair of the U.A. that she could not accept the CJC’s proposed amendments to the campus code of conduct. President Pollack claimed that the CJC’s “proposed revised code is not congruent to that of our Policy 6.4, either in terms of the procedures or the evidentiary standard used,” and purported that the Department of Education “expect[s]” universities “to ensure at a minimum that all student conduct proceedings are handled in a fundamentally congruent fashion, and utilizing the same burden of proof.” President Pollack nevertheless commended the CJC for its efforts and advised that she would take the CJC’s proposal into consideration when drafting the new code. She went on to state that she would also seriously consider a proposed code drafted by the Student Assembly because it embodies “the work of our duly elected student government.”
As the Judicial Codes Counselor, I served as an ex officio member on the CJC. My reading of the S.A.’s proposal is that it sought to make the disciplinary process more “educational” by stripping students of various procedural rights, making it easier for campus administrators to impose punitive sanctions on students. But putting that aside, as well as the fact that the Department of Education’s new regulations do not require consistency across student misconduct systems (the burdens of proof need not be the same, meaning that Pollack’s major justification is false), I want to comment on the President’s suggestions regarding the S.A. and the concept of shared governance.
Cornell University has a celebrated history of student involvement in its administrative processes. This shared governance model has prevailed at Cornell since the Willard Straight Hall Takeover in 1969; the existing Code developed from that in 1971. While the S.A. certainly embodies that shared governance model, the CJC embodies that model too. The CJC is composed of students, faculty and staff. Moreover, the CJC is uniquely charged with amending the Code. Based on my experience as an ex officio member of the CJC, I am proud to have worked with the other CJC members in drafting what we believe to be a compromise between the University and its members. Although the S.A. is exclusively student-run, Cornellians should know that the S.A.’s proposal that President Pollack is “seriously” considering was not student-created. From what I can tell, University Counsel drafted it, and a group of “student advocates” (an S.A.-created group) worked off of it (I cannot say how they got ahold of it) and made minor stylistic changes and a few substantive changes, all of which gave students less rights in disciplinary proceedings, such as taking away a ground for appeal and adding a possible sanction. According to one S.A. member, the S.A. only had a few hours to review the student advocates’ proposal before voting on it. Meanwhile, the CJC remained independent of the U.C. and worked slowly and deliberately. We met weekly and vigorously debated the substance of each provision of our proposal. Not one member of the CJC agrees with every aspect of our proposal. But that is exactly how democracy and shared governance is supposed to work.
Pollack has the power to take this process into her own hands. But the S.A.’s proposal should not serve as an example of Cornell’s much-celebrated shared governance model, so I hope that President Pollack does not continue to cite shared governance as a basis to defer to the S.A.’s proposal. Moving forward, I hope the U.C. considers three principles not reflected in the S.A.’s proposed code that I believe must be embodied in the final code revisions:
- Cornell’s disciplinary procedures will never be “educational” in instances where there is a potential for sanctions such as a written reprimand, disciplinary probation, suspension, and expulsion (all of which carry consequences beyond graduation).
- Curbing an administrator’s discretion by protecting students’ due process rights will help ensure an even-handed application of the code.
- Students need competent advising while facing Cornell’s disciplinary processes, and that advising should come from independent advocates who do not fear reprisal from the University and are trained in representing people facing serious consequences.
Gabrielle Kanter is a member of Cornell Law School’s class of 2020. She served as the Associate Judicial Codes Counselor, 2018-19, and as the Judicial Codes Counselor, 2019-20. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.
This article has been updated for brevity.