March 12, 2023

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | Re: Cornell’s Restorative Judicial System

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To the Editor: 

In his most recent column, Patrick Mehler ’23 argued that Cornell’s new judicial system is the “most community-focused and recidivism-preventing judicial process across college campuses.” Hyperbole aside, as a member of the Cornell community, I find this claim highly suspect.

Under the new system led by Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi, all authority to alter and administer the Student Code of Conduct is vested in Vice President Lombardi. The prior system incorporated Cornell’s shared-governance structure through the University Assembly Codes and Justice Committee which is comprised of representatives from the faculty, staff and student communities. To call anything which strips power from the voices of the Cornell community and hands it to a sole unaccountable authority “inclusive” and “community-focused” is disrespectful to the very idea of inclusivity and community.

In 1969, there was a similar debate over the fate of the Cornell judicial system. Prior to the Willard Straight Hall takeover by armed students seeking equal treatment under the law, Cornell operated under in loco parentis, where the faculty and administration had supreme control over the lives and rights of students. The ensuing debate around the 1969 takeover resulted in Cornell’s shared governance system, the Cornell Campus Code of Conduct, and the election of student trustees. Since then, the Campus Code of Conduct has been controlled by a combination of the students, faculty and staff so as to represent the many competing interests of everyone in the Cornell community. The ceding of authority to Vice President Lombardi in 2021 reversed over fifty years of shared-governance and hard-fought-for civil rights. 

The Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution, where Mr. Mehler is President and through which the classes he mentioned in his article are offered, reports directly to the Cornell Administration, namely Vice President Lombardi. Anyone who has taken a mediation class or has a lick of common sense will know that you are highly unlikely to get fair treatment when management is bankrolling the mediators. Why do we expect there to be any difference when Cornell is running the entire dog and pony show which they now call our judicial system?

While I laud Mr. Mehler’s belief that he is helping his peers, his actions show that he is merely a stooge for the administration. I do not discount the importance of student involvement in these mediating processes, especially for those students who will go on to careers in public defense and arbitration. Under the old Office of Judicial Administrator , Cornell law students were able to volunteer to serve as counselors for students accused of violating the Campus Code of Conduct. They were not beholden to the university, only their clients, fellow students standing accused by an administration with vast authority. These law students helped countless students proclaim their innocence against unjust accusations by the university. Under the new system which Mr. Mehler has lauded, those law students no longer operate in defense of their peers.

Instead, the Campus Mediation Program facilitates a discussion between the administration and the accused party. While this mediation-based system no longer has the aura of a tribunal, it removes the essential figure of a student advocate from the room. Mediators are meant to hear both sides of a dispute and help the two come to a mutually agreeable solution. With informational asymmetry between the professional administrators who are paid to know the Cornell Student Code of Conduct and the full-time students who have little time to brush up on the nuances of the code of conduct, the new system seems destined to put students at a disadvantage. Furthermore, the mediators receive training and guidance from Vice President Lombardi’s office, effectively making them just more of the administration’s representatives in the room. 

Without a trial and a counselor well-versed in the procedures of the justice system, and no stated expectation of outcome, this mediation approach has no guarantee of a positive outcome. While Mr. Mehler and his fellow mediators can determine cases resolved, there has been little made available about student satisfaction with this process. Rather than taking the word of someone who has benefitted from being a part of the administration’s new venture, you should consider the experiences of those caught up in the new justice system.

The experience myself and peers have with the new justice system is far different from Mr. Mehler’s as a mediator. When I sought justice for personal harm I experienced this year, I was told there was little the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards could do regarding accountability, and was reminded that I was graduating in a few months, so it was not worth meaningfully addressing. In the old system, and in any court of law, my case would be processed to completion. When I did seek help through OSCCS, I was incentivized to move on. Another peer was repeatedly asked whether they wanted to go through with proceedings and were heavily discouraged from doing so due to the personal ramifications of doing so. 

I highlight these difficulties with the OSCCS not to cast blame on the counselors who try their best to bring about a satisfactory solution, but to point out that nothing has changed substantively in terms of outcomes. For Mr. Mehler’s argument that Cornell’s new judicial system is the “most community-focused and recidivism-preventing judicial process across college campuses” to be true, there would have to be a measurable change in outcomes for students. Instead, the OSCCS, with much of the same staff as the OJA, suffers the same pitfalls of its predecessor. 

If Mr. Mehler thinks that an institution that has cast off its accountability mechanisms, has removed peer counselors for students and has generally the same outcomes of its predecessor, is the “most restorative and inclusive collegiate judicial systems in the country,” he is perfectly entitled to that opinion. But as an observer who has experienced this new justice system, I argue that the only thing this new judicial system has done has been to walk back fifty years’ worth of shared-governance and civil rights at the expense of accountability for the Cornell Administration.

Avery Bower ‘23

Avery Bower is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences studying History and Government. He can be reached at [email protected]. Comments can be sent to [email protected]