Part IV of a four-part series analyzing how successful the 2009-2010 reforms have been in making the Administrative Board’s disciplinary process more educational, transparent, and empowering for accused students. Part I, Part II, and Part III were published Oct. 23-25.
When Natasha faced disciplinary proceedings for a non-academic infraction at Harvard, she was questioned by two faculty members, both at least twice her age.
Natasha said that at her hearing, she was intimidated by what she perceived as aggressive questioning by her two interrogators, both of whom serve on the Administrative Board with other professors and administrators.
For Natasha, the presence of a third judge closer to her own age and status at Harvard would have eased her anxiety.
“Having a student on the subcommittee would have made me feel so much more comfortable, because I think a lot of the weirdness there is the power dynamic,” said Natasha, who requested that her name be changed because she did not want it known that she had been in disciplinary trouble at Harvard.
Harvard’s lack of student representation in its disciplinary body is unusual among Ivy League institutions—of the seven others, six offer at least an option for accused undergraduates to be judged by both faculty and students.
Three years ago, the committee charged with reforming the Ad Board suggested that Harvard should fall in line with its peers. In its 2009 report, the Committee to Review the Administrative Board recommended further discussion about creating a second board made up of both students and officials.
But without any formal discussion, the idea fell by the wayside.
This fall, as a massive cheating scandal revives dormant calls for a Harvard honor code, some say it is high time for the dropped proposal of an alternative board to be reconsidered.
A JURY OF THEIR PEERS
Technically, the College has had a secondary disciplinary board populated by both students and faculty for a quarter of a century. But the Student Faculty Judiciary Board, designed to hear cases not covered by existing faculty legislation, has heard just one case since its 1987 inception.
But the alternative board proposed by the reform committee would have had a much wider jurisdiction, covering non-peer disputes, like cases of plagiarism caught by professors. It would have consisted of three students and four additional voting members.
Accused students would have had the opportunity to go before either the traditional Ad Board or the alternative board to have their cases heard. Under the proposal, peer disputes such as sexual assault cases would continue to be heard by faculty and administrators only.
In 2009 and 2010, Harvard adopted parts one and two of the reform committee’s three-part proposal, including changes to the size of the hearings and the penalties doled out to cheaters. Part three, which called for discussion of a board including students, was never addressed.
Jeff Neal, a spokesperson for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote in an emailed statement that the
College chose to focus on implementing other recommendations first.
And Danny P. Bicknell ’13, the current Undergraduate Council president, said that conversations are currently lodged at a much more modest point.
In talks with Ad Board Secretary John “Jay” L. Ellison, he has discussed creating a watered-down alternative to the reform committee’s proposal: a student advisory committee that could recommend decisions but not vote on cases.
Bicknell said he does not foresee his proposal being implemented quickly but believes it could find support among administrators.
But Neal suggested that student representation in disciplinary proceedings was unwanted.
“In truth, we have heard from many students that they would not be anxious for other students to have detailed information about themselves or their actions as part of a disciplinary procedure,” wrote Neal, who declined to speak in person or by phone about the Ad Board.
All 30 current members of the Ad Board declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment for this series.
Certainly, not all undergraduates want to be judged by their peers; several students interviewed for this article who have faced or are facing Ad Board proceedings said they would be opposed to the idea.
But supporters of student representation stressed that the process proposed by the reform committee would be optional.
The reform committee’s report read, “Although not universally held, even among students, there is a view on campus that students should be involved in deciding disciplinary cases, as they have a direct understanding of the stresses and demands on their peers.”
Bicknell, who made the issue a plank in his presidential campaign platform last November, said that none of the students he, his running mate, or his campaign staff interviewed expressed opposition to the idea of increased student involvement in the disciplinary process.
JUDGING THE JUDGES
Some experts say they are wary of student representation on disciplinary boards because of the difficulty of properly training undergraduate judges.
Peter F. Lake ’81, a Stetson University professor who specializes in higher education law, said colleges must devote extensive resources to choosing and educating student representatives.
He added that Harvard in particular, which currently follows a “patrician” model in which experienced academics rigorously weigh evidence before coming to a decision, may worry that student representation could dilute the thoroughness of the process.
But Lake said that when schools are successful in training their student judges, the disciplinary process often becomes more credible.
Michael R. Schneider, a Boston lawyer who has consulted with students facing the Ad Board, agreed. “It adds a more democratic component to the process, being judged by a jury of your peers who are a little less removed,” he said.
Matthew L. Sundquist ’09, a former UC president who was the only student on the reform committee, acknowledged the challenges inherent in adding student judges but stood by the proposal. “I think it’s tricky, complicated, and I think it would be would hard, but I think it would be extraordinarily valuable,” he said.
Stephen Bryan, an associate dean who runs the Student Conduct Office at Duke University, said that students chosen to serve on Duke’s undergraduate disciplinary board are vetted to check that they are mature enough to deliberate on serious cases.
At Duke, a student must be a junior or senior to sit on the board. And the rigorous application process is competitive each year—typically, about 150 students complete multiple essays, interviews, and oral exercises in the hope of claiming one of the 12 to 14 student positions on the board.
Bryan said the system has been successful. In his 13 years at Duke, he said, just one student has been asked to resign from the Board for leaking confidential information.
PULLING BACK THE CURTAIN
Even after codifying a standard of evidence as part of the reforms, the Ad Board continues to face criticism that it lacks transparency about its proceedings and outcomes.
Critics point to the long-delayed database of Ad Board case summaries, which College administrators initially said they planned to release by the end of 2010. In February 2011, the management fellow in charge of compiling the database predicted that it would be released by the end of that academic year, and in April 2012, Ellison said he expected the first part of the database in a month. But that database has yet to be seen, and there is no new timeframe for its release.
Some say that by finding a place for students in its process, the Ad Board could help reverse its reputation for opacity.
“It would be a tremendous thing,” said attorney Harvey A. Silverglate, a Harvard Law School alumnus who has repeatedly published writings criticizing the Ad Board. “It would go a long way toward straightening out the system and making it more transparent.”
Bryan said that at Duke, student representation has been essential in increasing the clarity of the process for fellow students.
“It certainly demystifies the process by having students on the panel who can talk informally with their peers,” Bryan said. “I have this sense that at Harvard there’s this aura about the Admin Board—no one really knows about it.”
Experts say that student representation in Harvard’s disciplinary process would not only increase the Board’s transparency but would also help foster integrity at Harvard.
“When students hear information about academic dishonesty from their fellow students, it has greater impact than when it comes from administrators,” said Gary M. Pavela, a former director of academic integrity at Syracuse University who has also consulted with other institutions about their disciplinary processes. “If you have a student talking to other students about academic integrity, that’s when you begin to change your culture.”
But Lake said that student representation in the disciplinary process often only works if a campus culture centered on integrity already exists.
For some, an honor code—a policy formally trusting students to uphold ethical standards without policing—would set the stage for even greater trust of students, as judges in the disciplinary process.
Stanford University has long had an honor code, and in 1997, it replaced its disciplinary board with one that included students. The justification: all members of the university community governed by the honor code should have a role in enforcing that policy.
Biology professor Richard M. Losick said that he thinks that Harvard would benefit from both an honor code and student representation.
“It would put the responsibility on students for their own behavior,” he said, adding that as a student at Princeton, he felt the honor code inspired honesty.
At Harvard, the Committee on Academic Integrity, first convened in fall 2010, is currently debating instituting an honor code.
Last week, Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris, who chairs the committee, wrote in an emailed statement that the committee is not yet ready to release any information about its discussions. But in the wake of the Government 1310 scandal, some have called for Harvard to turn these talks into policy.
And as the honor code talks continue and the student government lobbies for a student role with the Ad Board, one long-time observer of Harvard’s disciplinary process still sounds a harsh note of pessimism.
“Right now, the administration has total control of the Ad Board. As soon as you put students on, you don’t have total control,” Silverglate said. “Until there’s a major shift in Harvard’s culture towards openness, I don’t think there’s going to be a student on the Ad Board.”
—Staff writer Mercer R. Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at email@example.com.
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