Last semester, President Michael Roth deliberated over roughly 40 appeals to decisions made by the Student Judicial Board (SJB), the Honor Board, and the sexual assault board. Effective next year, however, Roth will no longer preside over those cases. He has tasked the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA), the Student Affairs Committee (SAC), and Vice President for Student Affairs Dean Mike Whaley with establishing a new appeals process.
It is a change that WSA President Nicole Updegrove ’14 and SAC Chair Kate Cullen ’16 are eager to implement.
“President Roth doesn’t always seem accessible if you’re a student in crisis,” Updegrove said. “Judicially, he’s also far removed from students and professors.”
As the system functions now, when a student appeals a decision, Roth receives a file on his desk with the recording, hearing, and written appeal from the original case. He then chooses to accept the appeal, deny it, or call for a re-hearing.
Whaley explained that the sudden interest in changing the process stems from concerns surrounding compliance with Title IX, the section of the 1972 Education Amendments that protects against discrimination based on sex in judicial hearings.
“There have been a lot of appeals recently of very serious cases, and there have also been some suggestions from consultants looking at our compliance with Title IX,” Whaley said. “It’s a convergence of a number of things that has [Roth] thinking he should get out of that business.”
Whaley explained that the new appeals process will include a number of opinions; he has suggested small faculty teams of two or three, including himself, to review the cases and come to a decision. The SAC, too, is determined to provide appeals cases with a wide range of viewpoints.
“The SAC recommends that it’s a five-member board,” Cullen said. “We currently believe that [Whaley] should always be on the board, along with professors and faculty members.”
For sexual assault cases, which are currently judged by administrators only, the SAC has discussed but not come to a conclusion regarding whether or not it recommends that students serve on the board. Among the options for board members in these appeals cases are Whaley, randomly or strategically selected professors, and student members approved by those involved in the case.
“Some people thought it would be better to have the student perspective, but at the same time, it’s a big bearing for a student to hold and hear so much about the case,” Cullen said. “There’s also the issue of confidentiality. We’re still trying to figure out what we think about that.”
Whaley, though, is firm in his belief that students should not be involved in sexual assault cases at the hearing or the appeals process; he explained that removing students from the process years ago resulted in an increase in the number of sexual assaults reported.
“Wesleyan changed its practice at request of students to take students out of the process,” he said. “Students felt it was such a small campus that having students involved would have a chilling effect on people reporting it. [Sexual assault] is underreported on campus, but numbers of reports have been coming up since we’ve changed that process. I don’t think it would be appropriate to insert students back into that process now.”
The SAC is also considering allowing the student requesting the appeal to choose from a pool of faculty members; students might also be given the opportunity to request that certain professors not hear their case.
From here, the SAC will begin to formalize more of the many options it has already generated. It will also narrow down recommendations for Whaley, who hopes to have a final plan to submit to Roth before Spring Break.
Cullen stressed the importance of student opinion in the adaptation of the appeals process.
“We’re looking for ideas from everyone around campus,” she said. “We want to make sure that there’s a student voice that’s really strong.”
According to Cullen and Updegrove, empowering students is at the crux of their passion for the project.
“I hope that students will feel the process is more fair,” Updegrove said. “Having students and faculty members on the board means that they’ll be heard by members of the community who understand student life a little more, or recognize more flaws in the initial trial by the SJB, Honor Board, or the assault board. It’s an imperfect process, and I hope students feel that they’re being better represented.”
Cullen agreed that she anticipates better and fairer representation for students attempting appeals.
“There will be more transparency,” she said. “Students should know what they’re up against.”
Whaley does not find the current system unfair—he stressed the fact that once the SBJ or the Honor Board finds a student to be in violation, Roth cannot change the ruling, he can only modify it—but he too recognizes a need for transparency, especially because many students make unsuccessful appeals to contest their guilt.
“We need to look for ways to be clearer with students about this point and be upfront about that fact from the beginning,” Whaley said.