March 21, 2023

MEHLER | Further Detailing Cornell’s Restorative Judicial System 

Print More

In an article last week, Avery Bower ’23 expressed his frustrations with my recent column on Cornell’s judicial system. Those who disagree with what I write are always entitled to disagree, however, they are not entitled to lie, misrepresent and blatantly mislead the public about what is fact and fiction.

After reading that article, I believe that more details of Cornell’s judicial system would better help characterize how this system sits in Cornell’s organizational structure as well as what actually occurs in mediations. Opinion columns, such as my own, are not places for line-by-line breakdowns of opposing viewpoints, however, some sentences in response to my article are outright false; those lines will be unraveled.

Despite false claims, shared governance’s role in Cornell’s judicial system is alive and well with the University Assembly’s Codes and Judicial Committee actively participating.  As someone who sits on the UA’s CJC Committee, I can tell you that we are still involved in the judicial process and recently passed a resolution clarifying and affirming our role in this process. This bill unanimously passed committee and the UA, ultimately being accepted by President Martha E. Pollack on March 6, 2023.

In alignment with the UA CJC, decision-making authority at Cornell, as has been the case for all of the University’s authority, is held solely by the University Trustees, who delegate all authority down to administrators unless they act otherwise including in regard to the Code. The Trustees gathered relevant, and public, feedback on the Code before their December 2020 meeting where they ultimately elected to create a new code, withholding delegation of this task down to the administration.

Further examining decision-making authority at Cornell disproves Mr. Bower’s false claims that “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.” 

The Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution is an academic unit of ILR’s Extension Office, chaired by an ILR professor, not me. Secondly, the Scheinman Institute, as a part of ILR Extension, reports to the ILR Senior Associate Dean for Outreach and Sponsored Research, who reports to the ILR Dean, who reports to the University Dean of Faculty, who reports to the Provost. Everyone should learn more about Cornell’s structure here — at no point does the Vice President of Student and Campus Life ever hold authority over any of the academic units at Cornell, much less the Provost or Patrick Mehler. 

Additionally, I am the President of the Scheinman Conflict Resolution Club, which is a student-run club. No clubs on campus have any authority over classes being offered — rather, the Campus Mediation Practicum courses are offered jointly by Cornell Law School and the ILR School. 

Most confusingly in his article, Mr. Bower falsely claims that “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.” Firstly, Mr. Bower has not taken these mediation classes. I have taken and served as a teaching assistant for both Campus Mediation Practicum I & II for the past three years; Mr. Bower has not even once attempted to enroll in the mediation classes. 

Furthermore, all mediators are volunteers. No student is being paid by any “management,” and students’ grades are not dependent on settlement.  As an elective, student mediators in CMP work solely for a desire to improve their community and learn more about restorative justice, as is the mission of Cornell Law School practicums and elective courses. If Mr. Bower had taken this class, or at the minimum read the syllabus for the class posted online, he would know this. In fact, the “P” in CMP is for practicum, an experiential learning track offered by the Law School similar to the tax clinic or tenants advocacy clinic.

Mr. Bower then tirades what appears to be his personal frustration with me and with Cornell’s judicial system. After calling me “a stooge for the administration,” Mr. Bower claims that “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… Under the new system which Mr. Mehler has lauded, those law students no longer operate in defense of their peers.”

Contrary to Mr. Bower’s claims, those Cornell Law students continue to perform those exact same services, only now they are referred to as Respondent Codes Counselors. These law students continue to, as he says, “operate in defense of their peers” and in fact the RCCs, along with the Complainant Codes Counselors, frequently attend CMP classes and actively work with mediators to improve student experiences.  

Mr. Bower’s most blatant lie in his article is the easiest to refute: “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.”  As I mentioned earlier, the mediators receive training from world-class Cornell faculty, local and national Community Dispute Resolution Center directors and from peers through the CMP classes, offered by the Law School and ILR. I would encourage anyone still confused about Cornell’s academic and nonacademic structure to review Cornell’s organizational chart. At no point has any person other than faculty from Cornell Law School and the ILR School ever trained a student-mediator.

Mr. Bower further misrepresents this system by saying, “Mr. Mehler and his fellow mediators can determine cases resolved.” Mediators are third-party neutrals who may only facilitate discussion between the student-respondent and community-complaintant  — mediators cannot determine nor suggest outcomes.

I want to reiterate that Cornell’s alternative dispute resolution system is truly a marvel of student agency and student autonomy regarding misconduct. For example, at Boston College, a student found having committed misconduct has a minimum mark on their transcript for seven years. Students at Yale are encouraged to leave the university if they are struggling. Students at hundreds of other colleges suffer permanent discipline for mistakes they make as an undergraduate, with these as just a few examples. 

Most importantly, Cornell’s current restorative judicial system dismantles the standard us vs. them mentality of the courtroom.  For example, when a student steals something from the Cornell Store, we have four parties: The student who stole as the student respondent, a representative from the Cornell Store as the community respondent, the mediators and an OSCCS representative. Mediators facilitate a discussion between the student and the Cornell Store representative, and at the end OSCCS writes everything down. At no point is the Division of Student and Campus Life influencing decisions; autonomy lies solely with respondents.

At Cornell, a student who has committed misconduct is not only given agency over their next steps but is frequently connected with resources they might need. When a student steals from the Cornell Store, our first question is why? Unfortunately, the most common answer we hear is that they stole out of desperation. This mediation process does not seek to punish like other universities, but inform and support students in need.

My premises for promoting Cornell’s decision are truthful, in contrast to Mr. Bower’s false rationale for distrusting the system. However, I understand why people may be distrustful; it all may sound too good to be true. If you as someone reading this article have questions about mediation at Cornell or if you are willing to engage directly with your thoughts and feelings on this topic outside of publishing articles online, I encourage you to reach out to me and learn more.

Mediation at Cornell is a significantly more transparent judicial process than what we have had since the Code’s origin in the 1970s. Everyone in the CMP program would be happy to have interested students learn more or come to class. Cornell’s judicial system is not the monster Mr. Bower has purported it to be. It is an opportunity to improve the lives of developing students and assist them in times of need. And as I stated word-for-word in my previous article, “Cornell is one of the most restorative and inclusive collegiate judicial systems in the country.” And I am very proud of that.

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 every other Monday this semester.