Changes to Harvard Student Disciplinary Process Reviewed

November 7, 2012

In 2009–2010, Harvard University’s Administrative Board (widely known as Ad Board) implemented a series of changes to its student disciplinary process. Over the last two weeks, The Harvard Crimson has published a four-part series to evaluate those reforms now that they have been implemented and utilized for nearly 2 years. 

The first article of the series explores whether the Ad Board’s purpose was more pedagogical or punitive. The second article in the series addresses whether accused Harvard students, who are not permitted representation by lawyers during the disciplinary process, receive adequate counsel. The third piece scrutinizes the change in evidentiary standard brought about by the reforms. The concluding piece, which features quotes from FIRE Chairman and Co-founder Harvey Silverglate, assesses whether the reforms have made the Ad Board disciplinary process sufficiently transparent.

As readers of The Torch already know, FIRE frequently writes about student due process issues at colleges and universities. We’ve even published a Guide to Due Process and Fair Procedure on Campus (PDF). And we have certainly dedicated a lot of ink to the importance of fair evidentiary standards in campus proceedings. 

Unfortunately, as the Crimson series notes, many of Harvard’s reforms fall short of producing the kind of robust due process protections one would hope for from an institution purportedly dedicated to ensuring fundamental fairness. For example, the "reformed" system utilizes a unique "sufficiently persuaded" burden of proof—an evidentiary standard so vague that accused students are left to guess what the burden actually is. This standard of proof is without definition, unfair to accused students as a result, and should be replaced by a higher evidentiary standard.

I applaud Harvard’s Ad Board for undertaking the process of reviewing its procedures in the first place, but a lot of work remains to be done. Let’s hope that this simply marks the beginning of the dialogue, and that the process of refining the disciplinary procedures resumes in earnest. Dedication to student rights requires more than a one-time effort—no matter how sincere—to amend the procedures. It requires continued diligence with an unrelenting focus on fairness, reliability, and transparency. A higher and clearer standard of proof would be a great place to pick this back up.

Thanks to the Crimson for reviewing these procedures with a critical eye.

Schools:  Harvard University