Boris Tsang/Sun File Photo

The new Student Code of Conduct has been revised to make students more active participants in the judicial process.

July 23, 2021

What You Need to Know About the New Student Code of Conduct

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This fall, Cornell students will return not only to a mostly reopened campus, but to a campus operating under different rules. 

On Aug. 2, the Campus Code of Conduct will be replaced by a new Student Code of Conduct, which applies exclusively to students, while the old code sometimes also applied to faculty and staff.

The change comes nearly four years after President Martha Pollack asked the University Assembly to begin revising the code. Meetings and public forums on code revisions were frequently sources of conflict over everything from the timing of proposals to the now-failed attempt from the Office of the Judicial Administrator and other groups to lower the burden of proof required to find a student responsible for a code violation. 

Proponents of the new code have characterized it as an attempt to make on-campus judicial proceedings less legalistic and judicial

“Our goal is to engage students and organizations more holistically in the process of accountability,” said Interim Dean of Students Marla Love.

Among the most controversial changes has been the shift in control over revisions to the code. 

Since its founding in 1977, the University Assembly has overseen revisions to the Code of Conduct. That power will now rest with the vice president for student and campus life, currently Ryan Lombardi. 

Former U.A. Chair Logan Kenney ’15 J.D. ’21, said that based on statements by administrators and members of the Board of Trustees, she worries that this decision was unfairly based on Lombardi’s personal likability. 

“I am very fond of VP Lombardi … but what if he leaves? Why couldn’t Ryan and his office work directly with the U.A. [specifically the Codes and Justice Committee], an independent body with representation from all constituent groups, instead?” Kenney wrote in an email to The Sun. “I will never understand removing this vital document from the Cornell community. It was safe with the U.A. and of course subject to the President’s approval.”

But a December 2020 University press release defending the code stated that the Board of Trustees and president have always controlled the code, and that the U.A. can still propose amendments.  

Revisions to the new Student Code of Conduct will no longer be overseen by the University Assembly. (Jing Jiang/Sun File Photo)

Other policies have not undergone serious revisions. For instance, punishments that students can face if they violate the code remain largely unchanged. 

Additionally, the code now formally recognizes the Good Samaritan Protocol and eliminates the separate conduct system for fraternities and sororities. 

It also institutes mandatory minimum three-year suspensions of campus organizations for violations related to hazing, alcohol, risk management and sexual misconduct. These changes come on the heels of the death of Cornell first-year Antonio Tsialas ’23 after a Phi Kappa Psi party, and following calls by former Student Assembly President Cat Huang ’21 to remove fraternities from campus entirely. 

Lombardi said in an early June statement that the new code aimed to make students more active participants in the judicial process. The code now explicitly encourages the current practice of using mediators from the Campus Mediation Program, which partners with the Office of the Judicial Administrator to train students to mediate campus conflicts and code violations to resolve cases outside of hearings.

Associate Judicial Codes Counselor Suzanna Swanson J.D. ’22 said that mediation sessions — where student mediators help Judicial Administrators and accused students find a mutually agreeable solution to the case — often center around the accused student’s proposals and help give them a voice in the outcome. 

“The folks that I’ve worked with who have engaged in alternate resolution under the current code have, I think, found that they feel more heard,” Swanson said.  

The role of students filing complaints against other students has also changed. The new code distinguishes between reports and formal complaints: Students have the option to report misconduct and receive resources and help in addressing their immediate health and safety. 

Students may also choose to not file a formal complaint and end the investigation — but if the violation involves personal or public safety, an investigation may still occur. 

The offices that oversee student complaints will also change under the new code. The Office of the Judicial Codes Counselor and Office of the Judicial Administrator are being replaced by an Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards. 

The new organization will investigate and oversee judicial proceedings through an Office of the Respondents’ Code Counselor, where graduate students will represent accused students, and an Office of the Complainants’ Code Counselor, where graduate students will represent individuals accusing others of violating the code. 

The director of the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards will be appointed by and report directly to the vice president for student and campus life. 

The lead counselors of the Office of the Complainants’ Code Counselor and Office of the Respondents’ Code Counselor will be chosen by the Office of the Student Advocate and the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards director. 

This new level of administrative control over the campus judicial process worried Kenney, who said she thinks the Office of the Judicial Administrator no longer being an independent body may hurt the judicial process.

“Things change when your boss is [in the] administration,” Kenney wrote. “There are potential pressures and less independent decision-making.” 

For counselors at the Office of the Judicial Codes Counselor, administrative changes represent more than a name change. 

Counselors within the Office of the Respondents’ Code Counselor and Office of the Complainants’ Code Counselor will generally be barred from speaking or directly questioning witnesses. Unless they are given permission by the hearing chair, or the case involves suspension or expulsion, counselors may only submit written requests and objections to the hearing chair while students speak and ask questions. 

Advocates for this reform have called it a way to make judicial proceedings less adversarial. But Swanson said that, in her year in the JCC, she hasn’t witnessed this problem. 

“I have not seen a hearing myself that was overly confrontational,” Swanson said. “I do not think there was a need to remove those speaking rights … Every hearing I’ve watched where a JCC was participating has been respectful.” 

Opponents of banning JCCs from speaking at certain hearings argued that forcing students to defend themselves orally was unfair, given the stressful nature of judicial hearings and the fact that some students, especially those with less privilege, may be put at a disadvantage. 

In the old code, all accused students could have their appointed JCC speak for them, while the new code requires students to represent themselves under most circumstances.

A 2020 petition to the S.A. Codes and Judicial Committee expressed concerns about these changes, saying that students from privileged backgrounds with early exposure to public speaking training, and white men who are stereotyped as more persuasive and trustworthy, would benefit from the new system more than historically marginalized groups.

To counter this, Love said that code counselors, hearing and review board members, and Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards staff would undergo training aimed at making the process more equitable and inclusive.  

Regardless of their stance on the code, Cornell students will find themselves held to the standards of the new Student Code of Conduct when they head back to Ithaca this fall. 

To ease the change, Interim Judicial Administrator Christina Liang said that the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards will provide education and training opportunities focused on community standards, the conduct process, and students’ rights and resources.

“I hope for as smooth of a transition as we can have … and I hope to see the constituent groups deeply involved in the code process,” Kenney said.