Disciplinary procedures on college campuses

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Here are a few remarks about campus disciplinary procedures, to follow commentary on events at Reed and Middlebury.

A difference exists between violence and incivility, though incivility that shades into threatening language or actual threats counts for more than plain, everyday discourtesy. Let me treat violence – against faculty members, students, or visitors – first. Students who attack someone else should be expelled as fast as possible. Procedures for expulsion should be well known. If students or their parents say they weren’t treated fairly, they can talk with the president. The college should publish the names of expelled students to the world.

The last action is important, however strong colleges’ instinct to tamp down publicity when something bad happens. Otherwise violent students go from one campus to the next, just as violent priests went from one parish to the next after they raped children. Students who attack others should know the college won’t grant them leniency or protection.

When I taught at Carthage College in Kenosha years ago, a message went out via email that a student had been sexually assaulted in the music practice area of the college chapel.

When I taught at Carthage College in Kenosha years ago, a message went out via email that a student had been sexually assaulted in the music practice area of the college chapel. The location was the only specific piece of information in the entire, short message. Of course the college did not release the victim’s name, and should not have. In normal judicial process, the perpetrator would not be named until formally charged. This message, however, had the feel of an incident we were never going to hear about again. It had a hush-hush tone about it. Sure enough, we never did hear anything, so we never learned what happened to the rapist. The college wanted us to forget about the crime as soon as possible.

Now for the somewhat more difficult case of threatening language. I want to make another comparison here, this one to disciplinary procedures on board a Navy ship. The commanding officer has authority to discipline sailors through a proceeding called captain’s mast. The discipline is called non-judicial punishment. It is not a court martial, and normal rules of judicial procedure don’t apply. The types of punishment a captain can hand down are limited, usually restriction to the ship for a set period, like getting grounded when you’re a teenager.

A college is not a military organization, but the same ideas of non-judicial proceedings for incivility apply. A student who curses at a visiting speaker would meet with the dean of students or the provost in a formal setting. The disciplinary officer would  require the student to write an apology to the speaker. Students in that situation would know that if they make a second visit to the dean’s office, the college will suspend them for a semester or a year. Names of first offenders need not be released. Names of suspended students should be publicized internally, just as names of sailors who go before the captain are published in the ship’s plan of the day.

People outside of campus generally don’t know what measures campus leaders take to counter students who intimidate others, but that’s the point. Campuses have to stop being so private in matters of discipline, especially for violent students.

People outside of campus generally don’t know what measures campus leaders take to counter students who intimidate others, but that’s the point. Campuses have to stop being so private in matters of discipline, especially for violent students. Here I’m leaving out Title IX actions against students charged with rape. Judicial processes associated with Title IX begin to influence all disciplinary procedures on campus, in an environment where colleges don’t want any bad publicity to begin with. College officials don’t need to let that happen. They can separate the Title IX mess from speech enforcement issues.

So the last recommendation is that college leaders share their disciplinary procedures for speech enforcement with other colleges. No one wants to feel they act alone, and college deans can support each other. They can act on precedents set on other campuses. Right now we have the example set by Laurie Patton at Middlebury, and that is not a good precedent. She follows the Carthage College pattern, which hopes for fast healing and short memories.

Right now we have the example set by Laurie Patton at Middlebury, and that is not a good precedent. She follows the Carthage College pattern, which hopes for fast healing and short memories.

President Patton’s message to the Middlebury community runs longer than the Carthage message, but it leaves low expectations for correct follow-up. In that way, Reed’s rather stern response to extreme incivility sets a good example, especially if Kimberly Peirce’s visit was the first time students used obscene language to threaten a speaker. The tone of the college’s response was that we are not going to let this kind of treatment happen again. The missing piece is that it does not seem Reed identified protest leaders, so the college would not know whom to punish if similar treatment happens again.

Let me close with a comment about campus Title IX proceedings here, as we have read so much about them in the news. These proceedings have distorted college and university disciplinary procedures across the country. In the name of due process, Title IX administrative proceedings have done just the opposite. They twist due process to the point where people accused of rape have no due process rights at all.

I dearly wish one college president would say to the Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights, “Screw you. We will not let you determine how we handle these cases. We dare you to withdraw federal funds from our school.” Then the feds could try to withdraw funding for student loans, but I don’t believe even the Justice Department is that stupid, or powerful. I wonder if the feds could withstand the backlash from students and parents for that kind of move.


Related articles and passages

The Middlebury Mob Shows How Thin the Veneer of Our Civilization Is

Middlebury student, quoted in the first article:

When I first arrived at Middlebury I was clueless to the systems of power constructed around race, gender, sexuality, class or ability, and found that when I talked about these issues as I understood them—or rather, as I didn’t—I was met with blank stares and stigma rather than substantial debate. As a young bigot, I can recall thinking: ‘I thought at Middlebury I would get to have intellectual discussions, but instead it feels as though my views are being censored.’ However, as a first-year I had failed to consider a simple, yet powerful component of debate: not all opinions are valid opinions. ~ Nic Valenti

The ‘Postmodern’ Intellectual Roots of Today’s Campus Mobs: If reality is nothing but a ‘narrative,’ then of course it’s important to control what people say.

Introduction to the second article:

We are witnessing the second great era of speech repression in academia, the first coming during the “culture wars” of the late 1980s and early ’90s. One force behind the new wave is a theory of truth, or a picture of reality, developed the first time around. This theory, which we might call “linguistic constructivism,” holds that we don’t merely describe or represent the world in language; language creates the world and ourselves. A favorite slogan of our moment, “Words have power,” reflects that view. ~ Crispin Sartwell


Related post

Speech enforcers at Reed College and Middlebury College