Omar Abdul-Rahim/Sun File Photo

University lawyers were placed in control of the code of conduct revisions process in May.

November 12, 2020

Code of Conduct Revisions Expand University Role in Judicial Process, Minimize Student Rights

Print More

When a student is J.A.’d — the colloquial term for a disciplinary action carried out by the Office of Judicial Administration — they are usually represented by a law student akin to a lawyer, who guides them through investigations, interviews and, eventually, speaks on their behalf at a hearing.

Under the new student code of conduct revisions, this representation is gone. The law students, known as Judicial Codes Counselors, will no longer be able to cross-examine witnesses, or even participate in hearings beyond a silent, advisory role. Students will have to represent themselves.

The new revisions also expand the jurisdiction of the code — which governs Cornell’s judicial proceedings — to off-campus living areas, and gives the Office of the Judicial Administrator influence in the hiring process of Judicial Codes Counselors.

Marisa O’Gara, a third-year law student, head Judicial Codes Counselor, was especially concerned that the changing role of codes counselors would put students unfamiliar with the judicial system in a precarious position.

“If you’re accused of misconduct under the code, you have a lot at stake,” O’Gara said. “We’ve had a lot of students tell us that they feel like they were wrongly accused under the code, but the process is intimidating to them.”

In 2019, 820 students — almost 4 percent of the student body — were referred to the Office of the Judicial Administrator for code violations, which include anything from underage possession of alcohol to assault. 

Barbara Krause, the judicial administrator, wrote in an email to The Sun that the judicial process should be “less adversarial and less legalistic, and that advisors should be involved primarily to guide students through that process.”

Krause defended the revisions and called for a further restructuring of the Judicial Codes Counselors under the University Student and Campus Life office. 

“The OJA does not believe that positioning advisors as adversarial representatives for students supports that overarching goal,” Krause wrote.

Code revisions have been worked on the past two years by the Codes and Judicial Committee, although numerous delays and disagreements with the University ultimately gave the final say to University lawyers.

The initial reasoning behind the revisions was to make the code less “legalistic,” according to the 2018 Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate, but detractors were quick to point out that conflict within the judicial system was inevitable.

“It’s still a punitive process at the end of the day,” O’Gara said, “all of the changes that they’re proposing, with very few exceptions, take away the rights of students.”

Many concerns revolved around the changes to the hearing process, which currently allows Judicial Codes Counselors to speak and cross-examine witnesses in front of a hearing board made up of students, faculty and staff.

“If you are a decision maker on a hearing board, you need to be able to hear from witnesses and you need to be able to hear their answers,” said Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, labor and employment law. “That’s very different from reading a report by an investigator. It’s even different from reading a transcript.”

On Monday, a resolution criticizing several code of conduct changes — including the inability of Judicial Codes Counselors to represent student clients in hearings and the expansion of code jurisdiction to off-campus students — was brought to the floor of the Graduate and Professional Students Assembly.

Cat Huang ’21, Student Assembly president, addressed the GPSA before the vote, urging members to wait for undergraduate input before voicing their concerns. 

Huang did not directly oppose the resolution, but noted that undergraduates make up a vast majority of judicial cases — 791 out of 820 — while only 19 graduate students were referred to the J.A. in 2019. The resolution, ultimately, failed after two rounds of voting.

Contention over the code revisions had first come up in April over the standard of evidence needed to find a student respondent “responsible” for the code violations. On Oct. 21, University lawyer Madelyn Wessel — in charge of writing the revision draft — announced that the standard of evidence would be left to the Cornell community to decide.

A forum seeking public feedback is scheduled for Thursday, but emails announcing the event were only sent out on Tuesday morning. O’Gara said she was concerned that two days was not enough time for students and faculty to be aware of the imminent revisions.

“The overwhelming majority of students who are going to be deeply impacted by these changes are probably completely unaware that these changes are being pushed through,” O’Gara said.

The public comment period for the revisions is set to end Nov. 17. The proposals will then be reviewed by the University Counsel, who has the final say on what revisions are implemented before sending them to the Board of Trustees in December.