The Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) passed a Student Judicial Reform Resolution Sunday, April 22 concerning the standard of proof in Student Judicial Board (SJB) cases. The resolution calls for an increase in the standard of proof used in SJB cases, greater autonomy for the University’s Greek community, a more transparent judicial process for student group infractions, and the ability for students to access judicial reports through their Eportfolios.
Student Affairs Committee (SAC) member Scott Elias ’14 was the primary author of the resolution, which he co-sponsored with Community Outreach Committee chair Grace Zimmerman ’13, and SAC member Matthew Leibowitz ’14.
The first part of the resolution recommends increasing the standard of proof from “fair preponderance” to “clear and convincing evidence” for SJB hearings. This would apply to all infractions of the Code of Non-Academic Conduct, excluding cases of sexual misconduct, harassment, and abuse.
Joe O’Donnell ’13 began the initiative last year to increase the standard of proof with an online petition that was circulated to students.
“The [University’s] current standard, ‘preponderance of the evidence,’ requires that Student Judicial Board (SJB) members only find ‘more likely than not’ that a violation occurred,” the petition reads. “This standard is typically applied in civil cases, and only requires slightly more than 50% certainty. The proposed higher standard, ‘clear and convincing evidence,’ which is between preponderance and beyond a reasonable doubt, requires that SJB members find ‘substantially more likely than not,’ that a violation occurred.”
Innocent students can be found guilty under the standard of “preponderance of the evidence” if, for example, seven students are in a room and five of them are found to have been drinking. The remaining two students would be considered “more likely than not” to have consumed alcohol as well. Under the University’s current standard of proof, the two students who may or may not have been drinking would be found guilty.
O’Donnell’s proposal was rejected by the administration. Elias continued O’Donnell’s work this year by writing a resolution which was passed as a legislative act by the WSA.
“The issue can be simplified to whether Wesleyan as an institution believes in innocence until proven guilty, or guilty until proven innocent, with current policy reflecting the latter,” Elias said. “It’s important to note that this isn’t personal—it’s not a charge against the current SJB or any administrators, but a call to improve the institutional integrity of Wesleyan’s judicial system.”
Elias said that he wrote the proposal after the administration was not receptive to student calls for SJB reform.
“After the administration proved to be unresponsive to a reasoned debate grounded in intellect, practical idealism, and student interest, we carried this effort through a resolution—the only means left to reflect our belief that, in a community that adheres to principles of justice, basic liberties, like due process, are rights secured and not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests,” he said.
Zimmerman agreed that the resolution is intended to send a strong message to the administration.
“The administration has not been receptive to having conversations about amending the current standard of proof,” Zimmerman said. “The point of the WSA resolution is to make the student body’s stance on this issue clear to the administration.”
The second part of the resolution aims to grant Greek life more autonomy by creating a formal distinction between Greek and Society houses and program houses. It also calls for a “Greek life” page on the University website, with an online forum where members of the community can request to co-host social events in Greek spaces.
The document also addresses judicial consequences for student groups, which are not explicitly outlined by existing legislation.
“Currently, there is no legislation which explains how a group of people, as opposed to an individual, can be punished or put on probation,” Zimmerman said. “This is really only relevant when it comes to Greek life. The current process by which [Assistant Director of Student Life/Student Conduct] Scott Backer and the SJB decide who deserves what punishment, under what circumstances, is arbitrary and unclear.”
The resolution also includes a clause which calls for an increase in the transparency of judicial procedures regarding Greek life and student groups.
The resolution reads, “[We] encourage the administration to be open-minded in working with the Inter-Greek Council in their objective of establishing parallel institutions, policies, and procedures, such as, but not limited to, an Inter-Greek Judicial Board and Inter-Greek Appellate Board to address Greek and Society concerns regarding the current language and limitations of CNAC’s judicial procedures, including but not limited to probation, representation, hearings, and appeals for groups, and in order to provide a more transparent, inclusive, and equitable process.”
Elias stated that it is important that the Code of Non-Academic Content addresses students and student groups in different ways.
“Infractions of a group hosting an event should be handled differently than individual violations of a code,” Elias said. “The administration is contemplating a judicial point system to clarify enforcement of the code, but it’s an open-ended question as to how this would discipline groups as opposed to individuals…. There’s a total absence of the realization that groups, specifically those with houses and hosting privileges, are fundamentally different than individuals.”
The resolution also includes a clause that urges the administration to allow students complete access to their judicial files through their Eportfolio. Zimmerman said that under the current code students can only look at their reports while at the Dean’s office.
“If you get into trouble, you can go to the Dean’s office and look at your report only when the Dean is there,” Zimmerman said. “You can take notes on the report, but you cannot remove or photocopy the document. It would make a lot more sense if this information were readily available for students, so they have the time to understand what they are being charged with. Students often get in more trouble because they are misinformed.”
Elias and Zimmerman said it was possible that the administration would not support a number of the clauses in the resolution.
“It will be interesting to see what kind of leverage this resolution has with the administration,” Zimmerman said. “The work of the WSA is often ineffectual. The WSA has conversations about issues and resolutions that are passed, but often nothing is done by the administration. We will see if the administration responds to this resolution and if it has any effect on student judicial processes.”