I have been an intern at FIRE for six weeks now, and in this short time, I have had my eyes opened to the status of students’ rights on college campuses across the United States. I decided to apply to this internship due to my work in advancing due process rights at The Pennsylvania State University.
I am the director of the Student Conduct Advisors at Penn State. We are a division of the executive branch of our student union. My advisors and I work closely with the Office of Student Conduct to protect students’ rights to due process and keep the code of conduct up-to-date and fair for all students. Protecting due process means protecting students’ right to fair and equitable procedures when they are going through the disciplinary process. For example, we make sure that all students are being given proportional and equal sanctions for similar violations of the code of conduct. As advisors, we coach students on what they should expect to see and experience and what unfair treatment looks like. We are also able to talk through possible sanctions with the students so they have some idea of what could happen.
Though my group was established to be a watchdog for the OSC, I have yet to encounter an instance of administration overstepping their bounds. In December 2016, I attended a conference for students who were running programs similar to mine to help FIRE create a guide to starting a Student Defenders group for students across the nation. Being a part of that conference and subsequently applying to be an intern at FIRE has shown me that not all schools run the way I had assumed that they did.
In my experience as the director of SCA, I have relied heavily on my relationship with the OSC to help me in advancing my program and protecting the rights of students. The OSC has provided me with training materials, invited me and my advisors to mock hearings, and given the SCA time to talk whenever they were giving a presentation in freshman seminars. Our working relationship has been by far the most important resource during my time as director over these past two years. Whenever I am trying to enact change on my campus, they are the first people I look to after consulting my advisors. I assumed that my experiences were on par with what was happening at other schools and that my invitation to FIRE’s Student Defenders conference in December had more to do with FIRE understanding what we were doing than with combating a problem currently plaguing many campuses across the country.
While at the conference, I learned about the strained or sometimes nonexistent relationships that other student defenders had with their administrations. From constantly cancelled meetings to strongly-worded emails and letters sent to students, I began to understand what was occurring outside of my own bubble. Now that I am at FIRE, I am constantly updated on what is happening other schools. It has become evident to me that the disjunction between students and administration can lead to unrest on campus — they’re just not seeing eye to eye.
At many schools, there seems to be a fundamental lack of respect between administrators and the students they serve. They view each other as foes instead of allies or resources. Rather than working together or hearing each other out, both sides live in fear of the newest decree or demand to be brought by the other. This fear leads to battles between the two, always with a mess to be cleaned up afterwards.
What neither side seems to be acknowledging is that the other is their biggest resource. For students, they are missing out on the people who can revise the rules and give them the connections they need to make a change at their school. Administrators are missing out on the benefits that can come from listening to insight into the inner workings of a student body. Working together means bettering the school overall — time spent fighting each other for the sake of fighting is time wasted.
Collaboration between students and administrators could stop some of the problems currently arising on campuses across the nation before they even happen. If students felt that they were able to have a respectful meeting with administrators, this could lead to a campus that respects students’ rights. Free speech zones and preventing students from handing out pocket constitutions on campus are just a few of the ways in which administrators violate student rights on the constitutional level. When the administration exhibits a lack of respect for their students by ignoring their requests for meetings, dismissing their suggestions before considering them, or rolling out new regulations without any student input (situations which, as I found out at the conference, were happening on college campuses across the country with some regularity), they cannot be surprised when they are met with backlash. Students are people, too.
On the other hand, students need to understand how to approach administrators in a respectful manner. Administrators are not hired to be the enemies of students. They are supposed to be there to help the universities run better for all members of the campus community. When students try to overthrow or influence the decisions of administrators without understanding that role, they are in danger of undermining their own rights. Conversely, students pressuring administrators can lead to situations like the notable one at Washington State University in 2005, where a student’s controversial play was disrupted by hecklers who were sponsored by the university in the name of “free speech.” Administrators are in a tough spot: They have to be wary of violating the Constitution in order to appease students, but must also stand up against pressures which put them in a precarious situation. Administrators are people, too.
If there is already animosity brewing between the two groups, a calm and collected meeting should be the first goal that both parties have. It might not be easy, but understanding the other side of any issue is a good first step to a productive relationship between administration and their students. Establishing watchdog groups like SCA may sound confrontational, but it can actually open the door to vital resources for both sides. Both parties are meant to protect student rights, so a collaborative effort becomes a logical solution to violations or disagreements. Having a group to give thoughtful feedback rather than vilify administration can lead to a happier, more understanding administration that is more willing to listen in the first place. Understanding that both administrators and students are people who have worked hard to get where they are and who each have faced their own challenges can be a better mindset than considering oneself David and rushing to fight Goliath.
While I do not claim to have all the answers, I can attest to the fact that a respectful relationship between administration and students can be mutually beneficial. Knowing what you want and how you would want someone to approach you about an issue can be a good first step to establishing a solid relationship between students and administration. If one group is unwilling to work with the other, then you may have some bigger barriers to navigate, but attempting to form an amicable relationship could open a door you didn’t know was there. If, in your pursuit of this harmonious relationship, you see no positive outcomes, then by all means make your voice heard however you deem proper. Whether it consists of a student-run “Know Your Rights” campaign or administrators standing with the law to protect their students, student rights come first.
You can find out more about student rights, speaking out on campus, and more on our FIRE Student Network page.
Veronica Joyce is a rising senior at Penn State and a FIRE summer intern.