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MSA retracts recommendation to lower standard of evidence

BY MALLORY JONES
Daily Staff Reporter
Published December 9, 2009

The Michigan Student Assembly voted last night to retract the most contentious of seven recommended changes the body made for the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities earlier this semester.

MSA had previously endorsed an amendment to the student code that would lower the standard of evidence needed in a case brought against a student through the Office of Student Conflict Resolution.

But more debate on the topic — prompted by concern expressed by members of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs — brought forth an opinion among some members that the original recommendation was made with mostly sexual assault victims in mind, and that the lower standard might not be appropriate for other types of complaints.

Currently, OSCR requires a clear and convincing standard to find a student guilty of violating the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities — the main document that governs student behavior and activity on campus.

On Oct. 6, MSA approved a recommendation that the standard of evidence be lowered to a preponderance of the evidence standard.

LSA Rep. Vickie Hwang, who co-authored the original recommendation along with LSA Rep. Adam DeSantis, said the idea was to increase the likelihood of a victim of sexual assault coming forward.

MSA retracted the recommendation last night in a 14-13 vote, with three representatives abstaining.

A preponderance of the evidence is defined as “the greater weight of the evidence,” whereas the clear and convincing standard requires that the accusation be proven “highly probable or reasonably certain,” according to Central Student Judiciary Justice Ryan Particka, who read from Black’s Law Dictionary.

At its core, the amendment would have lessened the burden needed to punish a student for violating the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities.

When the amendment first passed the assembly in October, it was grouped with a series of other amendments, including changing the statement’s language to make it gender-neutral, and designating intimate partner violence as a distinct violation. The assembly passed all the recommendations at that time without debate.

After talking to University professors and administrators from SACUA, MSA President Abhishek Mahanti decided the assembly should re-visit its decision to support the change in the standard of evidence.

Mahanti said the amendments were presented to the assembly a week before they were voted upon, but the representatives did not thoroughly look them over.

“That process assumes that individuals would take time to look at it and gather evidence and arguments,” Mahanti said. “What alarmed me was that it all passed by consent.”

When a proposal is brought before MSA, the matter is not debated before the full body unless there is an objection from one its members. Without an objection, the resolution passes by consent.

MSA, along with University executive officers and SACUA, is given the opportunity to amend the Statement every three years.

The changes that MSA approved in October were sent to SACUA, which reviews them and ultimately decides whether to recommend them to University President Mary Sue Coleman for implementation. With or without SACUA’s recommendation, MSA’s amendments are sent to Coleman.

Hwang, co-author of the original resolution, said that after presenting these changes to SACUA and hearing their debate on the change, she realized that MSA had not adequately discussed the amendment.

“When we initially proposed it we didn’t realize that there were so many other aspects of it and so many other implications that we had to consider,” Hwang said.

MSA Treasurer Vishal Bajaj, who only votes in the event of a tie, voted in favor of the resolution. He said that while he supports the efforts of those trying to make the process easier for victims of sexual assault, he doesn’t support changing the standard for all 20 violations in the Statement.

Beth Sullivan, a representative from the Center for the Education of Women, came to last night’s MSA meeting and urged the assembly to support the change to a preponderance of evidence standard. She said that most universities adhere to this standard.

According to Sullivan, the judicial body of the Greek system uses the preponderance of evidence standard in all of its cases. Sullivan read to the assembly a statement from Max Barack, the Judicial Vice President of the Interfraternity Council. In his statement, he urged the assembly to keep its recommendation to lower the standard of evidence.

MSA Vice President Mike Rorro, who voted against last night’s proposal, said that the assembly should take into consideration that the Greek system has already made this change and MSA should recommend the University do the same.

Rules and Elections Chair Michael Benson said this change would endanger those accused of violating the code.

“We have to also look out for the right of the innocently accused as well as the rights of the guiltily accused,” Benson said. “Everyone deserves their fair day in court.”

— Scott Suh contributed to this report.