March 6, 2023

MEHLER | Cornell’s Restorative Judicial System

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On Aug. 2, 2022, the newly adopted Cornell Student Code of Conduct replaced the Cornell Campus Code of Conduct, significantly changing Cornell’s judicial system. While an article from The Cornell Daily Sun covered the changes before they actually occurred almost two years ago, there has been little coverage since due to the mostly private nature of student misconduct across campus. There were no articles about students being reprimanded for underage drinking and campus store theft then and there are no articles about it now. But for those who work directly with the new code, and for myself who has worked with both the old and new code, we have seen a dramatic and positive shift in how Cornell handles student misconduct.

I enrolled in ILRLR 4027: Campus Mediation Practicum in fall 2020, the first fully virtual semester and the third year of the CMP program. CMP trains undergraduates, graduate students  and law students to serve as peer mediators in judicial proceedings for students who have committed misconduct. The program has trained over 100 students in its seven-year lifespan and further trained dozens more to serve as mentors and handle more difficult cases in ILRLR 4029: Campus Mediation Practicum II: Advanced Issues in Restorative Justice.

Before the creation of CMP, the Office of the Judicial Administrator oversaw all violations of the Campus Code of Conduct, an office with full oversight over anyone who broke the code, including those by nonstudents. When a student broke a rule — for example, underage drinking in the dorms — the student would go through a hearing by the University Hearing and Review Boards and typically find themselves in violation of the code, receive a mark on their transcript noting their misconduct and be reasonably embarrassed during a months-long process meant to show them that their actions have consequences. The process was so well-known that students before the pandemic still know the phrase “getting JA’d.”

The OJA suffered from its own issues besides a reputation for crushing students’ graduate school dreams: An investigation by The Sun revealed that an understaffed and overburdened office was dramatically increasing how many students were suspended and expelled for misconduct. Additionally, as the OJA was still responsible for Title IX cases at the time, they received accusations of mishandling those cases, eventually leading to them being outsourced.

While the OJA’s system appears atrocious, the staff members there consistently strived to improve the situation. With CMP’s introduction and still being under the new code, students were now given a choice: Go through a hearing like in the old times or try out a mediation process where other students would mediate a meeting between the student and OJA representatives. As advocates for this process in the OJA encouraged more students to try mediation, more students found themselves successfully settling with the OJA rather going through the hearing process; by the end of 2021, former Student Assembly President Cat Huang’s senior honors thesis revealed that a staggering 85 percent of cases reached settlement without going through a formal hearing.

So, what has changed since the new code then? Firstly, the OJA no longer exists. As part of the code revision, the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards replaced the OJA and was able to hire nine employees compared to the previous three, due to a significant increase in funding. OSCCS now handles all student conduct cases (still excluding Title IX) and strongly advocates for students to reach mediated settlements instead of hearings. While exact numbers are not currently available for how many cases have been mediated and settled, I can tell you that as the teaching assistant for both CMP and CMP II for almost two years, I have seen dozens of cases now being resolved through mediation instead.

During these mediations, mediators incorporate many facets of restorative justice that uniquely fit Cornell’s situation. Parts of this process include an establishment of co-created ground rules, a focus on repairing harms and rebuilding trust for the individual and the community and the ability for either party to end the mediation at any time. Between these restorative parts and the process at large, student misconduct cases have shifted from mandated punishment through a hearing to personalized responses through a cooperative process in just seven years.

While this little history lesson may be interesting, why does Cornell’s judicial system warrant attention? Cornell’s judicial system is one of the most, if not the most, restorative and inclusive collegiate judicial systems in the country. As I work on my own senior honors thesis, I am trying to discover what alternative dispute resolution systems exist across American colleges. Ombuds systems appear to be the most prevalent, but more and more schools are attempting to use restorative justice in their nonjudicial processes. Cornell is certainly not the first to try, but we are one of the most successful, long running and all-encompassing programs that allow all types of students to mediate all types of cases.

The Cornell mediation process is certainly not perfect; it is also not fully restorative. But this process is the most community-focused and recidivism-preventing judicial process across college campuses. I believe that as collaborators across campus continue to improve this mediation process, Cornell’s judicial system will only become more perfect and help students in difficult situations rather than punish them.

Patrick J. Mehler is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. The Mehl-Man Delivers runs alternate Mondays this semester.