The right to legal counsel in judicial proceedings is generally understood to be among the most important guarantees in the United States. While this system is certainly imperfect, it is undoubtedly better than the alternative: courtrooms where the accused have to go into it alone. Despite this, millions of college students are confronted with precisely such a scenario within university conduct systems. These tribunals are judicial in nature but do not offer similar guarantees. Young adults facing university conduct violations must navigate, usually without legal counsel, quasi-legal university processes, unfamiliar jargon, and in many cases little to no due process, often with dire consequences.
As with any system designed to assess “guilt” or “responsibility” for an action, it is critical that the accused knows precisely what their recourse is so they have the opportunity to mount a proper defense.
Recognizing this, the Pennsylvania State University’s Student & Organization Rights Advisors program exists to provide knowledgeable advice and emotional support for students and registered student organizations working through the university conduct process. Just as the technicalities of the American legal system are foreign to most, so too is knowledge of the university’s conduct processes. SORA exists to mitigate the negative effects of this knowledge gap and provide much needed peer support.
Colleges across the country employ a student conduct disciplinary process where accused students, by default, typically have little to no knowledge of the process prior to participating. Given the exorbitant price tag of higher education and its significance in establishing young adults in the professional world, it is evident that university conduct processes oftentimes carry with them the “effect of law.” While one’s life can be sidetracked by being arrested, the same can be said for students facing an academic integrity violation, suspension, or expulsion.
Colleges across the country employ a student conduct disciplinary process where accused students, by default, typically have little to no knowledge of the process prior to participating.
At Penn State’s flagship University Park campus, where I am currently enrolled as a student, the Office of Student Conduct historically handles north of 1,500 student code of conduct violations annually. The State College borough and the Penn State administration publish a collaborative annual report that details the number and extent of substance abuse violations occurring within the campus community. In the 2019-20 academic year, OSC processed 764 alcohol related violations and 108 drug related violations for a total of 872 total substance abuse cases. Given that the 2020 spring semester was cut short due to the COVID-19 transition to remote learning, it’s worth noting that the more normal 2018-19 academic year contained 1,540 OSC-involved instances of drug and alcohol violations.
Of course, violations are not limited solely to substance abuse-related incidents. In addition to these violations, the previous year brought about a significant number of cases related to academic integrity, COVID-19 policy offenses, and several types of housing-related cases. Provided that some 1,500-plus undergraduate students of the 46,000 students at the University Park campus annually face some degree of life-altering or stress-inducing conduct charges, the need for advising becomes all the more apparent. Without an organization like SORA to prepare students for the process they are required to undergo, an even more significant number of students would enter their hearing or conduct conversation almost entirely uninformed of what is to occur.
While one’s life can be sidetracked by being arrested, the same can be said for students facing an academic integrity violation, suspension, or expulsion.
Though SORA has existed for over 55 years within the Penn State community and is a free resource available to all 46,000 undergraduate students, its student utilization has historically been low. The code of conduct, however, underwent significant changes due to the necessities of the COVID-19 pandemic. These changes, in turn, significantly elevated SORA’s position in the conduct process. Given the university’s public health interests in mitigating large gatherings, the student code of conduct was made significantly more expansive. In the past, conduct cases were almost exclusively related to on-campus residence life; the code of conduct now governs many aspects of off-campus life previously thought to be solely the jurisdiction of the borough police department.
As a result, SORA was forced to adapt to the changing circumstances to fit the needs of students across the undergraduate population. Per SORA’s internal statistics, in the 2018-19 academic year, the organization assisted just 13 students with their OSC cases despite over 2,000 having been processed throughout the university. As a result of the SORA team’s efforts to meet the demands of the student body throughout COVID and increased focus on direct outreach to students, the 2020-21 academic year allowed our peer advisors to assist with 103 cases, an eightfold increase in the number of students reached and assisted over just two academic years.
Simply put, if students don’t know their rights and they don’t know how the system works, it is not unsurprising that their student misconduct hearing result is one that they don’t feel comfortable with.
The positive influence of this is clear-cut. Across the board, students that entered a conduct conversation having been assisted by a SORA advisor prior to their session have the benefit of prior notice of what to expect. Simply put, SORA takes the stress and worry out of the conduct process while helping students learn — which, in theory, should be the goal of any university process.
It is my hope that SORA’s efforts over the last year are just the tip of the iceberg. The increased student reliance on the service exposed a much misunderstood and ignored institutional knowledge deficiency among the student body. Simply put, if students don’t know their rights and they don’t know how the system works, it is not unsurprising that their student misconduct hearing result is one that they don’t feel comfortable with. With this in mind, I encourage every reader to consider how a comparable student defender organization could positively benefit your campus community.
If you don’t have an organization and want to start one, know that FIRE’s Student Network has all the resources and tools necessary to get an efficacious student defenders organization off the ground and assisting students.
Lewis Richardson is a rising senior at the Pennsylvania State University and FIRE Summer Intern.