Despite its decidedly anti-student orientation, the University code of conduct, known euphemistically as the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities, remains an unknown to most of the student body. This year, however, students have an opportunity to pressure administrators to make significant modifications to the Code.
Every two years, the Michigan Student Assembly proposes amendments intended to address flaws in the Code, and this year it is proposing 18 changes. The Student Relations Advisory Committee, composed of students, faculty and staff, is in the process of evaluating these amendments, which range from a proposed provision that would evaluate whether infractions are hate crimes to including legal representation in the process of punishing infractions. Once SRAC sifts through each amendment, it will pass the ones it approves on to University President Mary Sue Coleman, who in July will ultimately decide whether to add them to the Code. Unlike two years ago, when Coleman failed to make any major changes to the Code, she should adopt significant amendments. The University should serve the interests and protect the rights of its students, not administrators clinging to their leverage over the student body.
Not surprisingly, administrators have come out against the most important amendment, which would allow students to have attorneys represent them at hearings evaluating alleged infractions under the Code. Keith Elkin, the director of the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, claims that the hearings should not include lawyers because the process should be “educational.” However, the type of hearing — referred to formally as arbitration — that the Code employs clearly resembles a judicial process. Students can find themselves overwhelmed by the hearing’s close resemblance to a legal proceeding. As laypersons, they do not have the expertise to best defend themselves. By keeping the process “educational,” in reality, Elkin most likely means that he wants to maintain the advantage the process currently affords to the University.
In an attempt to justify his position, Elkin said that “ … there’s going to be a fundamental inequity in that, on the one hand, students with the most money are going to be able to hire better lawyers.” And although he may be right that some students could find it necessary to hire high-priced counsel to argue on their behalf at these hearings, this “inequity” is surely not a reason to keep lawyers out of the process. Does Elkin believe that individuals accused of committing crimes under state and federal law should not be entitled to attorneys because some defendants can afford better representation than others?
Unfortunately, MSA’s proposal would only allow a lawyer to represent a student in cases in which expulsion is a possibility. Certainly because of the life-altering implications of an expulsion, students should be able to receive legal representation, but because other types of hearings may involve issues with criminal implications, students should be allowed to have professional legal representation in all cases.
MSA also submitted an amendment that aims to tackle the issue of hate crimes and how the Code should address them. Harassment, as defined by the Code, fails to consider the possibility that there could have been racial, sexual, religious or sexual orientation biases against the victim. This addition will increase the level of culpability of students who commit hate crimes.
MSA has offered more solutions to make the Code’s procedures more transparent to both the accused and the entire student body. Unlike the current system in which the accused first learns of the charges against him after all the evidence has been collected and brought forth, one amendment proposes to allow both sides to review the evidence before the actual arbitration, correcting a disturbing flaw in the system. Furthermore, MSA has rightfully suggested that the terminology of “arbitration” be changed to a more appropriate description of the process as “hearings.” Students should understand the true nature of the process that the University labels arbitration, a word that connotes a much softer process. In reality, what they face is an unfair situation in which the University does not have a high burden of proof, and sanctions are handed down because of “clear and convincing” evidence, not the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” that our justice system employs.
Although these changes will not completely fix the numerous flaws in a statement that restricts students from bringing charges against administrators and teachers, Coleman needs to take MSA’s proposals seriously and implement them. MSA should also realize that its proposed amendments do not go far enough.