But a significant number of students do care. Town halls packed with hundreds of students last year proved this. Yes, many showed up because they were members of activist groups that sought to pack the house. But that doesn't negate the fact that they showed up, and it raises the question again: Why do we care about the Rules of University Conduct?
To get some context, we have to go back to last spring, when the University Senate revived the Rules of Conduct committee, which had been defunct for five years—and no one cared. No one but Daniel Stone, CC '16, who broke the story in The Lion, even knew about it. (Full disclosure: I ran with Stone for CCSC E-Board on a satirical ticket.) The Rules of University Conduct themselves had been dormant for years, and so most, myself included, hadn't even heard of them.
But over the course of the fall semester, awareness of the rules grew. Two members of the University Senate Rules of Conduct Committee, University Senator Jared Odessky, CC '15, and CCSC Vice President of Policy Sejal Singh, CC '15, were largely responsible for this. They convinced the committee to hold town halls, and reached out to students to inform them about the importance of the rules. Still, getting students to care is not an easy feat, and can't be accomplished simply by raising awareness.
For those who know even a little bit about the rules, the answer to why students care might seem obvious: The rules provide guidelines for the policing of behavior at Columbia. They provide a basis for what behaviors are affirmed, what constitutes a violation, what the process for adjudication is, and what the possible sanctions are.
These rules are adjudicated by Vice Provost for Academic Administration Stephen Rittenberg, who has overseen administration of the rules since 1989. He has almost never used them, which has caused many to question student concerns. However, Rittenberg will be stepping down at the end of the 2014-15 academic year.
At town halls last semester, members of the Rules of Conduct committee heard student concerns about the rules, ranging from vagueness of language to anachronistic measures for technology. Although committee members recognized that the rules had flaws, it was clear that there was a gap in understanding between the committee and students present. Committee members were incredulous that the rules would be stretched and used to discipline students, or scare them into submission, especially when they hadn't previously been. Students were incredulous that the situation would be anything but that if the rules remained the same.
Therein lies the crux of the issue: Students care about the rules because they do not trust Columbia's administration.
Colleges and universities have come a long way since the 1960s, when many were just leaving the days of in loco parentis. Before Dixon v. Alabama in 1961, universities had far greater authority over their students' lives, and they could even expel students without due process. That paternalism is largely gone, even at private universities like Columbia (except from Deantini's annual convocation speech, in which he announces temporary ownership over parents' children while they're at Columbia).
What attitude exists in its stead is difficult to place because the University acts in a variety of roles, including service provider, teacher, and community facilitator. Because the University has failed in some of these roles, many students see Columbia (the administration in particular) as an antagonist instead of a parental figure.
This isn't a new phenomenon. Students in the 1968 protests certainly felt that way, and in subsequent years, trust in the University has hardly improved. Yet, many administrators do not understand that this eroded trust exists as a powerful undercurrent of Columbia culture, even as many lionize our proud tradition of protest.
So what does all this have to do with the rules? It means that students will not receive the protections they ask for because the committee (which is mostly composed of faculty and administrators) does not approach the rules with the same lack of trust.
During a USenate plenary last Friday, the Rules of Conduct committee unveiled some of its proposed changes. Among the proposed changes is one to do away with the current internal and external processes for sanctions and replace them with a streamlined internal process. Another suggests a panel of deans as part of a revised appeals process.
Initial student reaction to the proposal has been largely negative. Perhaps the most telling sign that the committee has failed to grasp student concerns—or has simply ignored them—is its failure to properly address conflicts of interest.
The committee's proposed change would prevent the dean of the student's school from sitting on the appeals board for the sanctions process. This change draws lines in the sand where there are none. All administrators who are visible faces for the University exist to further its reputation. Perhaps not primarily, as some might claim, but they do all the same. The conflict of interest there is implicit, and that is why many students view an external process—adjudicated by an outsider—as vital.
In short: Students care about these obtuse, obscure rules because this is today's version of a fight against an administration that has failed students in some ways.
For my part, I would love to see a set of rules that protects students and vigorously affirms freedom of expression, not because I think the administration would otherwise act maliciously and attempt to silence students, but because I like the safeguard on principle.
When dealing with administrators, I think it's important for students to remember that they're people too and that they have an understandably different perspective from students, whether or not we agree with them.
And when they fuck up, well, I think Hanlon's razor usually offers the explanation.