After waiting out the mandatory two-year period to propose amendments to the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities — the code — the Michigan Student Assembly’s efforts to change the system have met opposition. The University’s Student Relations Advisory Committee voted Friday not to recommend an amendment that would allow legal representation for students facing charges stemming from the code. Although SRAC’s decision is a setback to the MSA-sponsored change, University President Mary Sue Coleman can still overrule the SRAC and approve the amendment. At the University of Iowa, where Coleman served as president before moving to the University, students are permitted representation by an advisor during alleged violations of the Code for Student Life. Coleman should be mindful of her experience at Iowa and grant students the right to counsel when charged, especially under a code that already gives unfair leverage to the University.
Not surprisingly, Vice President for Student Affairs E. Royster Harper has supported the Director of the Office for Student Conflict and Resolution, Keith Elkin, who claims the arbitration process is an “educational” proceeding. However, this educational process that both Harper and Elkin attest to hardly ever gets implemented — most students admit to committing an infraction before arbitration because they believe their punishment will be harsher if their case is settled by arbitration. The average student, who has a very limited understanding of the code, would feel more comfortable with arbitration if legal counsel were allowed. With help from a lawyer, the student could actually get to see what the “educational” process that Harper and Elkin reference is about.
More importantly, the students who actually choose to arbitrate their cases need attorney representation because certain convictions under the code carry life-changing, and sometimes criminal, implications. The arbitration process itself, as described in the code, is heavily slanted in favor of the University. The University does not bear the burden of proof, and convictions are made because of “clear and convincing” evidence, not the standard “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Additionally, under the code, Harper possesses the power to reverse judgments made by the arbitration jury. The odds for a student victory are minute. Furthermore, most students are unaware that what they say in the proceedings may be subpoenaed for use in actual criminal trials. Having an attorney to represent students, instead of merely providing advice and comfort, would not only help prevent self-incrimination, but also give students a better chance to prevail.
Elkin, who opposes the idea of legal counsel at arbitration proceedings, has argued that richer students would be able to hire the best lawyers, unfairly disadvantaging poorer students. There is no solution that could completely address this inequity, but the University could mitigate it by allowing Student Legal Services to represent less fortunate — or any — students. Instead of denying all defendants lawyers because the poor cannot afford attorneys, our justice system requires free legal representation for underprivileged clients. The University, which already employs lawyers through SLS, could do the same for its students.
Considering all the code’s flaws, Coleman should act in favor of students’ interests and use her position to pass the amendment. With hazing allegations against the Greek system that could result in expulsions and subsequent criminal judgements possibly pending, students may be in immediate need of legal representation. Coleman should recognize that students have the right to legal counsel and choose not to follow the SRAC recommendation.