As part of a prolonged effort to gain student support for the new Standard of Proof Proposal, Chair of the Wesleyan Student Assembly’s (WSA) Student Affairs Committee (SAC) Joe O’Donnell ’13 has been gathering signatures and testimony about their experiences with the Student Judicial Board (SJB). Scheduled to be voted on sometime in the coming weeks, the proposal would increase the degree of certainty required to convict a student in a SJB hearing for a violation of the Code of Non-Academic Conduct (CNAC) from 50 percent to 75 percent, or from fair preponderance of the evidence to clear and convincing evidence. O’Donnell has already pushed back the original date that the proposal was scheduled to be voted on.
“Over 430 students have signed the petition to show support for the change, and over 20 have submitted cases that seem like they fit the bill of either being way too severe or completely unfounded in evidence—in this gray area between 50 and 75 percent certainty,” O’Donnell said.
However, SJB member Ross Firestone ’12 expressed that part of the issue was that students often feel as if they are being unfairly targeted by the SJB.
“Students will always have issues with the SJB because they feel that they are only a minority of students who violate certain sections of the Code of Non-Academic Conduct at a given time, and don’t feel as though it is fair to be sanctioned for things that plenty of other students do,” Firestone wrote in an e-mail to The Argus. “This is inherently different from Honor Code violations, which are much more infrequent.”
While O’Donnell expressed concerns about the number of students who felt their rulings were unjustified, Vice President for Student Affairs Michael Whaley felt that a certain number of such complaints are to be expected.
“Given that several hundred cases are adjudicated every year, it is perhaps reasonable to expect that some small number of students may not be happy with the outcome of a particular case,” Whaley wrote in an e-mail to The Argus. “Still, I hope that every student feels that the process itself has been fair, even if they don’t like the outcome.”
According to O’Donnell, The WSA’s collection of student complaints and stories of the SJB are intended to offer insight into the SJB hearing process. Even if the outcomes of earlier cases cannot be changed, O’Donnell hopes that the WSA can work with the SJB and the administration to evaluate the evidence used to determine the rulings in past cases.
“There are two possible outcomes in our formal review of the cases,” O’Donnell said. “Either there was evidence the SJB discovered that indicates ruling in the higher range of certainty anyway, in which case the language should be altered to more consistently reflect that; or the SJB was ruling in a range in which guesswork, hunches, and tenuous inferences are implied, which is completely unfair to students. The standard of proof should be raised to ‘clear and convincing evidence’ either way.”
However, Firestone expressed concern that O’Donnell has not opened a discussion regarding raising the standard of proof in Honor Code violations.
“What concerns me is that Joe O’Donnell has not raised any issues with the Honor Board, which also follows the fair preponderance standard,” Firestone wrote. “Since a student found in violation of the Honor Code would face much more severe consequences than one found in violation of the Code of Non-Academic Conduct, regardless of whether or not the Honor Board’s ruling was correct.”
Whaley expressed his faith in the current methods and student judgments in cases.
“They take their responsibilities seriously and I have every confidence that they adjudicate cases fairly,” he wrote.
President Michael Roth also articulated his support for the SJB, as well as a willingness to discuss raising the standard of proof in the future if the Board deems it necessary.
“I think the SJB is working really well, and that it’s a great group of students,” Roth said. “They do a service to ensure that the Honor Code and academic regulations of the University are taken seriously, and I listen to their sense of what is working and what is not. Their view seems to be that there is no need for change with the Standard of Proof, but I certainly will continue to get feedback from them on the subject.”
According to SJB member Jeremy Koegel ’12, the Board is looking forward to seeing the student testimonies and hearing what the SAC has to say about the process.
“[The SJB members] have recently reached out to Joe and arranged to look at the cases that have been sent in to him in hopes of getting a better idea of the problems,“ wrote Koegel in an e-mail to The Argus. “At this point, we are planning to review the cases and possibly meet with Joe and other members of the Student Affairs Committee to discuss the issues.”
The SJB and the administration have yet to hear the specific complaints from students but are willing to cooperate with the SAC to determine what aspects of the hearing process students are unhappy with.
“The SJB is very anxious to understand the nature of the concerns that have been shared with the WSA,” Whaley wrote.