Opinion | Staff Editorials

Students should be part of judicial process

 The website for the Office of Judicial Affairs and Community Standards advertises itself as assisting with the “maintenance of a safe, honest, and responsible campus environment.” It reassures students that they will only “come in contact with the OJA” in the most serious of cases. This rings true beyond disciplinary action involvement—there is no student representation in the OJA at all.

When students are referred to the OJA, it is through a process known as Dean’s Discipline, which covers behavioral, academic, and off-campus violations, with the exception of sexual misconduct, which is under the jurisdiction of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Sexual Assault. While PACSA’s membership includes two anonymous students, its judicial process is completely opaque. Student leaders are attempting to change it through the creation of a public subcommittee. Dean’s Discipline, on the other hand, is carefully covered on the OJA website, and is “not meant to be an adversarial or legal process, but instead aims to educate students.” 

What it amounts to, however, is a private hearing from two staff members from Student Affairs—or, for General Studies students, one staff member from the OJA and one staff member from GS—without any student involvement. After the hearing, the accused student’s case is decided—presumably by the hearing staff, although the website is not clear in this regard—based on “preponderance of the evidence.” This standard of proof allows significant room for interpretation, so the composition of the committee is important.

The accused student, because of the nature of the hearing, does not have a right to be accompanied by anyone to the meeting, except for his or her adviser. Accused students should be able to choose their support in the hearing from any University affiliate, because advisers are not necessarily the best advocates for the accused student.

We can change this process, and we have the example of many of our peer institutions to follow. Harvard’s Student-Faculty Judicial Board even provides a rationale for inclusion of students as jury: “To hear those disciplinary cases for which there is no clear Faculty legislation or accepted precedent within this community for response.” We fully agree: Students are more deeply ingrained in student culture than administrators and thus have a better understanding of the student community. That is not to say that nonstudents don’t know anything—their experiences simply aren’t as direct. This student perspective is invaluable and can prevent administrators from making out-of-touch decisions.

By including student voices in the judicial process, we create a more just trial—one by peers, not administrators alone. A trial that includes students provides several benefits over one without students. Notably, the inclusion of students represents an important reassurance that disciplinary measures will be proportional to the severity of the violation. Indeed, even the mere presence of other students can be important during a stressful process.

There are lasting effects to decisions, as Harvard’s judicial board correctly recognizes. The disciplinary decisions that are made become community standards, so the membership of any judicial committee should represent the community at large. Princeton has two committees with student involvement that play a similar role, with pledges of anonymity and confidentiality required for members. These schools aren’t the only two—Dartmouth, Yale, the University of Virginia, and many other colleges have student representation in their judicial committees. 

But there is also a precedent even at Columbia. Barnard has an Honor Board, which is composed of a majority of students, and the Greek Judicial Board is entirely student-led. In 2008, both Columbia College Student Council and the Engineering Student Council passed a resolution to create a Judicial Affairs Advisory Board to recommended changes to the disciplinary process. However, it has since become defunct.

Involvement of students in judicial affairs is an absolute necessity, especially considering the ongoing debate about an honor code. Students must have a say in order to grant the current process legitimacy and to ensure fairness in the future.

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To respond to this staff editorial, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.


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Anonymous posted on

Spec, why have you not informed the Columbia community that with ample legal assistance by Columbia University, Chad Washington has been let off the hook by the court?

You voted '-1'.
CU_Alum posted on

What is your evidence that Columbia has given him "ample legal assistance"?

Anonymous posted on

It's true that a student panel would have a better understanding of the student community. But with that comes a stronger bias. I don't see how a panel of students could ever be a fair and neutral party, especially in cases of sexual assault. They will have far too much in common with either the victim or the accused.