It isn’t exactly the higher-education version of Guantanamo over at the Office of Student Conflict Resolution.

Jordan Schrader

Students don’t face particularly draconian penalties at the hands of the disciplinarians charged with enforcing the University’s code of conduct. OSCR can’t take legal action against students. It can suspend or expel them, but the office didn’t suspend a single student in the 2003-04 school year, and it hasn’t reported expelling a student since 1996. Because OSCR views discipline as an educational process, it often sentences students to take a conflict-management class, write a paper or just apologize to the accuser.

Yet a group of dedicated students again and again tries to reform OSCR and rewrite the code of conduct, arguing that the whole process is an abuse of power over students. This year, they are focusing on obtaining legal representation for students who face expulsion at code-violation hearings. A committee of faculty and students will consider whether to make that and other code amendments on Friday.

So why try to reform the expulsion process when it hasn’t handed down an expulsion since before the football team won its last national championship?

Moreover, the kangaroo court isn’t exactly hopping — few students go to a formal hearing. In 2003-04, just two cases went through the much-criticized formal arbitration process. The other 113 cases that OSCR took care of were settled in more informal settings, in which the accused students accepted responsibility for their misdeeds or agreed to sit down with their accusers and work out their differences.

So the students’ demands for legal representation at the hearings seem unnecessary. Nothing to get worked up about — it only affects a handful of people.

Yet that handful could include any student on campus. Particularly affected are those in the Greek system, now that several chapters on campus have been swept up in an investigation of alleged hazing practices. Hazing falls under the code, so OSCR has the task of disciplining the students involved.

University officials described pledges locked in car trunks and driven in circles until they were sick, while others were allegedly stripped to their underwear and left in a room with the wind blowing through open windows until one pledge required medical attention. Surely those accusations are significant enough that some students faced (or still face) potential expulsion — though the secretive process prevents us from knowing for sure until the University makes its final report.

Perhaps the fact that no one had been expelled for code violations in nearly a decade should have comforted the students in the chapters under investigation. But probably not. After all, the University also hasn’t systematically pursued hazing violations until recently, at least not with such a public campaign. It used to take serious injuries like the one in 2003 at Sigma Chi to provoke a major investigation.

The University is making a statement against hazing. That may not translate into harsh penalties this year, if administrators think a warning shot is enough. But the crackdown illustrates that treatment of code violations depends on the values and whims of the changing leaders of the University. It will especially depend on the philosophy of OSCR’s leaders and the people they choose to arbitrate student disputes.

I know if I faced being thrown out of the University because of accusations against a group I belonged to, I would want a lawyer. I know if the accusations were so serious they could lead to a criminal investigation, I wouldn’t be satisfied with having the lawyer whispering in my ear, which is currently allowed at OSCR hearings. I would want him pleading my case and cross-examining my accusers.

OSCR Director Keith Elkin says adding lawyers to the mix would “fundamentally change the nature of our process, and we would look more like a criminal justice system.” It’s an understandable concern. But if it only applies to a couple of hearings a year — probably fewer, if lawyers were allowed for only the most serious charges — it should have little effect on the day-to-day conflict management of OSCR.

It’s true that the change would affect few people under the philosophy of education espoused by OSCR’s leaders. But philosophies can change and students can quickly find themselves in over their heads. The University would do well to throw them a line.

 

Schrader can be reached at jtschrad@umich.edu.

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