Columbia: New Year, Same Injustice

By on October 19, 2001

Although a new academic year has begun at Columbia University, students there continue to live under an abusive, unjust, draconian, and irrational sexual misconduct policy. Faced with a barrage of criticism of its dangerous policy, Columbia proclaimed the code an unfinished piece of work, but it admitted that it had tried a student under its provisions, and with a new semester, Columbia’s travesty of decency continues.

Under this policy, a student accused of sexual misconduct at Columbia has no right to receive timely and specific notice of a charge, to prepare a defense, to confront and cross-examine his accuser, to cross-examine witnesses, to have meaningful counsel, to secure a recording or transcript of the proceedings, or to have an impartial hearing (special jurors will be specially “trained” in recognizing “sexual misconduct”). From the summer of 2000 to the present, Columbia has received rightful warning of the harm it is doing to justice and the harm its policy will do to individual lives. This criticism began with FIRE’s private and reasoned appeal to the Columbia trustees. In the face of their silence, the matter became the subject of public discussion, and a significant number of other defenders of due process rights and of fundamental fairness weighed in against Columbia’s disregard for decency. In addition, Columbia has received withering criticism in the pages of The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and The Village Voice. A broad coalition of critics from across the political and ideological spectrum has come together to call for the policy’s repeal, including the Heritage Foundation, Feminists for Free Expression, the Columbia chapter of the ACLU, and the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

By the end of the last academic year, Columbia’s administrators were decidedly on the defensive. Reeling from media attention to what Nat Hentoff has called Columbia’s “Star Chamber,” the University signaled an intention to back away from the measures in the sexual misconduct policy that routinely and purposefully deny students their due process rights. Indeed, in April 2001, Charlene Allen, the head of the misnamed Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Education (OSMPE), resigned, charging that Columbia had given in to FIRE. In contrast to their previous statements, officials began referring to the policy as a “draft.” In the July 6 Chronicle of Higher Education, however, Columbia conceded that a student had already been punished under the policy. When pressed by The Chronicle about the fairness of punishing a student under a policy that was still on the drawing board, Columbia’s Associate General Counsel, Patricia S. Catapano, stated weakly that “it’s a question we’re not prepared to answer.” Indeed, Columbia was and is seeking to punish students under the policy. Protestations to the contrary are merely part of the public relations campaign to defuse media and public criticism.

Now that the students have returned, Columbia is proceeding apace to enforce and strengthen this abhorrent policy, in which a charge would be equivalent to a conviction. In an August 14 email to “interested students,” the acting coordinator for the Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Education, J. J. Haywood—replaced in September by a new “acting coordinator,” who was replaced, in October, by a “coordinator”—stated that although she was willing to consider changes to the goals, priorities, and organization of the office, she would consider these changes to be “in addition to the obvious, clear-cut and non-negotiable responsibilities of the office,” which included “overseeing and administering all aspects of the University Policy on Sexual Misconduct…training hearing panelists, conducting hearing panels…etc.” Columbia University began the academic year with no intention whatsoever of reviewing its brutally flawed disciplinary procedures.

Haywood has since flown Columbia for the family pizza business in Minnesota—a plus for campus justice, and, we hope, no injury to pizza—and the coordinator of the OSMPE is now Ms. Misumbo Byrd, the fourth person to head the Office in seven months. Ms. Byrd has indicated a willingness to consider the flaws of the policy she oversees, although the real responsibility for the oversight of decency and fairness rests with the president and the trustees of Columbia. In an interview with The Columbia Spectator, however, citing her experience in the fields of domestic violence and sexual abuse, Ms. Byrd stressed her impartiality by saying that she has worked with both “perps [perpetrators] and victims.” This division of the world excludes the category of innocent victims of false accusations-let alone of victims of false accusations denied a fair hearing-and does not give FIRE great hope.

The ongoing debate over Columbia’s unconscionable Sexual Misconduct Policy has garnered little attention of late, due to the news that Lee Bollinger, lately the president of the University of Michigan, has been chosen to become Columbia’s nineteenth president. FIRE hopes that Mr. Bollinger will defend due process rights at Columbia and will eliminate the Sexual Misconduct Policy that tarnishes the institution’s reputation. President Bollinger has the chance to begin his tenure with a due respect for the values of a free and fair society. We urge him to do the moral thing.

Schools: Columbia University Cases: Columbia University: Violation of Due Process Rights in Sexual Misconduct Policy