Victory for Student Rights in Wisconsin: Regents to Restore Due Process Rights

By on May 6, 2009

MADISON, Wis., May 6, 2009After substantial input from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents has restored essential due process rights for students statewide. The restored rights include the option of a hearing before a committee including student peers, attorney representation in the case of serious allegations, and both e-mail and paper notification of proceedings.

“The Board of Regents should be highly commended for protecting students’ rights and fundamental notions of fairness across the state,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “The policy revisions are a victory for due process rights, which have been systematically reduced in higher education over the last few decades. It is very refreshing to see a university system take steps towards restoring procedural protections for students.”

Since 2007, the Board of Regents has been developing a new version of Chapter UWS 17 of the State Administrative Code, which governs infractions and judicial procedures within Wisconsin’s public universities. A committee of administrators and students suggested many controversial changes that met with strong opposition from FIRE and student groups. The most objectionable changes limited due process rights and afforded a dangerous degree of discretion to administrators. Had it been granted, this discretion would have opened the door to due process lawsuits as well as arbitrary and inconsistent punishments.

Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, went on a speaking tour of Wisconsin campuses sponsored by the United Council of UW Students in early March to advocate against the controversial changes. On March 5, he spoke before several Regents directly at a public hearing. On March 13, FIRE wrote the Regents with seven specific concerns together with the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Almost all of FIRE’s concerns were addressed satisfactorily by the Regents, who will vote on the final version of the policy on Friday, May 8.

One significant issue involved a single word. The revision committee had changed “shall” to “may” in the provision that “The hearing examiner or committee shall observe recognized legal privileges.” The change to “may” would have taken away a huge swath of legal privileges that had been guaranteed to students, leaving students with no idea, until they actually arrived at the hearing, what the rules of their hearing would be. After FIRE intervened, the Regents restored the original word.

At least one member of the revision committee has criticized these positive changes. “It is sad that some administrators are unhappy about these improvements for students’ rights,” Kissel said. “Students should not have to fight administrators for their rights every step of the way.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty within the University of Wisconsin System and on campuses across America are detailed at thefire.org.

CONTACT:

Adam Kissel, Director, FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program: 215-717-3473; adam@thefire.org

Michael Moscicke, University Affairs Director, United Council of UW Students: 608-263-3422, ext. 17; university@unitedcouncil.net

Judith A. Temby, Secretary, University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents: 608-262-2324; board@uwsa.edu

Schools: University of Wisconsin – Madison