“University Official”: A Challenge to Student Self-Governance?
By Russell Schmidt
Every Washington and Lee student has an important and inherent responsibility of self-governance that separates us from our peers at other colleges: we have the privilege of holding one another accountable for good character, honorable behavior, and integrity. Respecting this privilege, which was given by Robert E. Lee to promote individual responsibility, is essential to our education here at Washington and Lee.
This idea of student autonomy extends to disciplinary issues, as students have long been trusted to appropriately handle incidents of misconduct themselves, tasked with creating a community built around our “one rule” - to act like a gentleman at all times.
The disciplinary process at our university, unlike Lee’s rule, is a complex one, with several acronym-bearing committees delegated a specific type of misconduct to handle.
Specifically, there are five committees tasked with oversight for student conduct: The Executive Committee (EC), for violations concerning the Honor System; the Interfraternity Council (IFC) and the Panhellenic Council (Panhel), which preside over our Greek organizations; the Student-Faculty Hearing Board (SFHB), which was created by the Executive Committee specifically to handle cases of sexual misconduct. Since its inception, the SFHB has broadened its jurisdiction to include individual cases of hazing and “conduct unbecoming.” Finally, the Student Judicial Council (SJC) deals with student misconduct that does not fall under the jurisdiction of any of the aforementioned committees.
Like any fair judicial system, there is an appeals process in place for each of these disciplinary bodies. Excluding the EC, all bodies have a uniform appeals process that is directed to the University Board of Appeals (UBA).
Paraphrasing from the Student Handbook, appeals brought to the UBA may be granted according to the following criteria: 1) Reasonable basis for a different sanction than what was given by the original disciplinary body; 2) New information relevant to the case becomes available; 3) Procedural error in the handling of the case; and 4) “extraordinary circumstances.”
The UBA is chaired by the Dean of Students, who selects one faculty member and one student from a pool of UBA members to serve along with her as a 3-member panel for each case.
Each disciplinary case typically has two main parties involved; the claimant (the party who brings forth an accusation) and the respondent (the party being accused). Both of these parties have the right to bring an appeal to the UBA following a case.
However, there is a little-known third party involved with this appeals process: around ten years ago, a new position of “University Official” was created. The University Official is chosen to serve by the Dean of Students on a case-by-case basis. In addition to the claimant and the respondent, the University Official has the power to call for an appeal in any non-EC disciplinary decision.
The existence of this position raises several questions. If both the claimant and the respondent are satisfied with the outcome of a case and do not appeal the decision, then why is this University Official necessary?
According to Dean Evans, there are situations where “the University has obligations related to certain conduct” that require an appeal if the original sanction does not satisfy the University policy on the appropriate penalty for the violation.
For instance, the Board of Trustees has a “zero-tolerance” policy towards hazing violations. So if a confirmed case of hazing was brought to the IFC, and the IFC decides not to pass a sanction, or gives a sanction that is beyond or below the appropriate level of punishment for hazing, the School would be required to appeal the case. (Check out page 42 and 52 of the Student Handbook for a lengthy list of the “suggested” sanctions for different types of misconduct).
Furthermore, as Dean Evans explained, the University Official may be necessary when a case doesn’t have a complainant, such as a student being arrested for a DUI and subsequently being called to the SJC. If the SJC fails in passing a sanction that satisfies the required sanction-policy on a DUI violation, then the University would need to appeal the case due to the lack of a complainant.
Is the University Official a cause for concern, as we work to maintain the tradition of student self-governance essential to W&L? It’s understandable that the University has certain liabilities regarding illegal conduct. However, the University Official being obligated to appeal decisions that do not meet the criteria of suggested punishments is seemingly incongruent with the history and principles of our school, as it expresses a lack of faith in students to make the right call.
As stated on the University website, Robert E. Lee is celebrated here for abolishing the “former written rules and regulations” and fostering a community built around one single rule: that we conduct ourselves as gentlemen and gentlewomen.
However, the Official is obligated to appeal decisions that do not follow the sanctions suggested by the school. To some, this system of binding, codified policies may seem no different than the system Robert E. Lee is praised for abolishing.
The UBA has publicly available records dating back to the 2011-2012 academic year that show that the University Official has not appealed a case in the 3 years since then, but there have only been 8 total cases appealed in that time. Records prior to 2011 are not available unfortunately.
The University Official may be a necessity amidst a society and a legal-environment much different than what Lee encountered 150 years ago. However, in order to maintain and strengthen our guiding principles of mutual trust and individual responsibility, we must constantly be mindful of the present and future role of student self-governance and the rules placed around it.