At Cornell, Repressive Conduct Code Proposal Resuscitated

By February 7, 2008

Brushing aside widespread criticism and concern about diminishing the due process rights of both students and faculty, the president of Cornell University has renewed efforts to install a repressive new student code of conduct.

The proposed code (known as the Krause Report after its author, former Cornell Judicial Administrator Barbara Krause) was first discussed and summarized here on The Torch back in December of 2006 with the help of Cornell Law student Andy Cowan, and we were pleased that the proposal was seemingly tabled for good last March after generating an overwhelming amount of negative feedback from students and faculty worried about losing rights.

However, Andy (now Vice Chair of the Codes and Judicial Committee of the University Assembly, and graduating from Cornell Law this spring) writes this week with the unfortunate news that Cornell President David Skorton has rejected calls to reform the proposed changes, overruling the suggestions of Cornell’s University Assembly.

Andy writes:

You may recall that a year ago, we were all discussing the "Krause Report" on Cornell’s campus code of conduct, which proposed a radical, repressive, regressive change to the Code. Last May, the University Assembly rejected the biggest proposed changes to the process, and in December, the UA recommended that the president adopt a revised code of conduct that kept in place the procedural protections for the accused, but restructured the code to make it easier to read and expanded off-campus jurisdiction. Inside Higher Ed has a good summary of our proposal.

Now, I’m sad to say, the President has rejected or demanded modification of several key aspects. Worse, he has not remanded the code back to the University Assembly for reconsideration, but is appointing a new task force consisting of central administrators, University Counsel, the Secretary of the Corporation, and "a representative group of the leadership of the University Assembly." In particular:

*The President supports maintaining a "right to remain silent," but wants to also impose the Krause Report’s "obligation to cooperate."

*We strengthened the language providing for a right to counsel. President responds "the CJC’s recommendation is not accepted," and wants to completely eliminate the right to counsel except where the respondent is also charged with a crime as a result of the same alleged conduct. The only reason he gave is that Academic Integrity "and other university policies" don’t include a right to counsel.

*Although we had the standard of proof on our agenda to discuss this semester, the President believes that we recommended maintaining the "clear and convincing evidence" standard (which I fully support) because we didn’t change it, but wrote that our "recommendation requires further review"apparently swallowing Krause’s line that the clear and convincing standard values perpetrators more than victims.

*We decided that for the first time, the accused could agree to suspension or expulsion as part of a plea bargain, but that in order to protect respondents against abusive plea proposals, any plea that included an agreement for suspension or expulsion would have to be approved by a hearing board. The president wants to eliminate the hearing board’s oversight.

*We created a procedure for summary suspension pending a hearing "in extraordinary circumstances and for the purpose of ensuring public order and safety." The president would add "or seriously disrupts the educational environment."

*We codified the current practice that where criminal charges are pending, the University should abstain from hearing a case until the public officials have disposed of it. Skorton would eliminate the Judicial Administrator’s discretion to delay a case for that reason.

*Finally, the president would change the code’s approach to penalty determinations, making the hearing and review board penalty determinations purely advisory and giving himself (or his designee) unilateral authority to dictate the penalty in any case that involves violence, threats of violence or "serious disruptions to the educational environment." (I still don’t know what that phrase means!)

As Andy’s much-appreciated summary makes painfully clear, the renewed push behind the Krause Report’s recommendations is bad news indeed for Cornell students and faculty.

FIRE is obviously very dismayed to learn of President Skorton’s misguided effort to press ahead with such obviously repressive changes to Cornell’s student code. One would think that one of America’s most prestigious institutions of higher education would grasp the essential importance of preserving basic due process rights for faculty and students, but apparently we hope for too much. FIRE will monitor the situation closely. In the meantime, we urge Cornell students, faculty and alumni to voice their displeasure with President Skorton’s attempts to roll back rights at Cornell.