UW System conduct code revisions still need tweaking

May 7, 2009

A committee of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents on Thursday voted to delay until June the consideration of proposed revisions to the student conduct code.

A key issue was a provision that would allow students to have a lawyer speak on their behalf during disciplinary proceedings where they face suspension or expulsion or have been charged with a crime in connection with their conduct.

While students and advocates have argued that students are entitled to legal representation during such hearings, some student affairs officers testified that lawyers make the hearings too adversarial.

The university system has been working on changes to the conduct code for two years with the goal of giving the university broader powers to discipline students for misconduct off campus.

The impetus for the changes sprouted at UWM, where long-term residents have pushed the university to exert more influence over rowdy students who rent apartments near the east-side campus.

A task force made up of university officials from several campuses proposed initial changes last fall. But at a March public hearing, students and representatives from the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education criticized some aspects of the policy as too restrictive of students’ rights.

The code was later amended to address those concerns, prompting cheers from many students and from the foundation. Now, one of the major amendments – the part of the code that would allow students to have a lawyer speak on their behalf in some circumstances – might be tweaked.

The Board of Regents’ education committee on Thursday heard testimony from several speakers, including a hearing examiner from UW-Madison who suggested that having lawyers present could undermine the function of the hearings because attorneys are too confrontational. Speakers cited literature on student discipline that says proceedings should be educational in nature, rather than court-like.

The committee members also were concerned that in cases where a student alleges sexual assault, having lawyers at the hearing could present an obstacle to women coming forward.

UWM student Kyle Duerstein, who sat on the task force, called the push against lawyers disheartening.

“At the end of the day, students need to have representation when they don’t know what they’re doing, especially when suspension or expulsion is sought,” Duerstein said.

Most regents on the committee seemed to believe that they could come up with revisions to the code that would still involve lawyers but would better define their role, possibly by setting rules for their behavior during a student’s hearing.

The committee sent the code back to the system’s academic affairs leadership for further refining.

Other key aspects of the proposed code:

•&enspThe university can discipline students for “serious and repeated off-campus violations of municipal law” if the conduct affects a substantial university interest – meaning it is a serious criminal offense; presents a danger or threat to the health or safety of himself, herself or others; or impairs the university’s ability to fulfill its teaching, research or public service missions.

That’s a change from the task force’s original proposal prohibiting serious “or” repeated off-campus violations.

•Students can appeal any misconduct case to the Board of Regents, regardless of the sanctions imposed.

•Students can choose between a hearing examiner and a hearing committee in any misconduct case.

•Language was added to state that nothing in the code is meant to violate the constitutional rights of students.

The original goal of the university system was to have new conduct code changes go into effect this fall. That’s still the goal, although the delay could mean the rules won’t get final approval by the start of the school year.

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Schools: University of Wisconsin – Madison Cases: University of Wisconsin: Students’ Due Process Rights