Students at the State University of New York at Buffalo are on the verge of losing a key resource dedicated to protecting their rights: their Student Defender Program.
UB student newspaper, The Spectrum, reports that on July 1, the university will transfer control over student fees from a 49-year-old student-owned organization, Sub-Board I, to a private nonprofit organization called the Faculty Student Association. According to The Spectrum, the decision came after an internal review of SBI practices by UB. Thousands have already signed a petition objecting to the change, which is expected to be accompanied by the elimination of several student services, including SBI’s Student Defender Program. This cut in particular would be a huge loss to the campus community.
Student defenders groups exist across the country, and they play several critically important roles in ensuring that students’ rights to a fair disciplinary process are respected. Whether they call themselves student rights advocates, student advisers, or something else, group members know their schools’ disciplinary procedures and are trained to advocate for students accused of misconduct. At a time when accused students are often scared and confused, student defenders serve as a guide, explaining their institution’s policies, the options available to the accused student, what their due process and other rights are, what strategies may be best, and more. In addition to helping students on a case-by-case basis, student defenders often work with administrators to revise policies so all students’ rights are better protected.
Through FIRE’s Student Defenders program, we help new groups get started, and we help already-established groups become stronger. We have heard directly from student defenders how their assistance has helped accused students obtain better, fairer outcomes in their disciplinary cases. Several student group leaders have relayed that the administrators they work with are grateful for the way the defenders help procedures run more smoothly and provide continuity between administrations. We’ve also heard from students who received help from student defenders and said that having a guide through the process significantly improved not only the outcomes of their cases, but also how they felt during the process compared with what they anticipated.
All university campuses benefit from programs like these, and the University at Buffalo community is no exception. The university should commit to continuing to fund its Student Defender Program so that students can benefit from this important service without worrying about keeping the program afloat themselves.
If it doesn’t, FIRE stands ready to help. We have grants available to any student defender group that needs supplies or funds for advertising, and we’re here to answer questions and join students in pushing back against any other impediments that they might encounter in their fight for student rights.
Students at the University at Buffalo have raised several other concerns with the university’s plan, including FSA’s involvement in an embezzlement scandal and the loss of services like a South Campus safety shuttle bus and a database that helps students find off-campus housing. Disappointingly, students may also lose access to free legal services that they currently use for a range of issues, including those relating to housing, driving, and immigration.
Additionally, the campus radio station is at risk, meaning that students would have one fewer avenue through which to express themselves and inform their peers. Students said that they felt blindsided by the university’s decision to have FSA manage fees, compounding their disapproval about how the university is handling the issue.
FIRE can’t address all of these concerns, as many fall outside the scope of our mission, but will do our best to help where we can. If any students find their student defenders groups at risk because of a lack of funding or other support from their institutions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with FIRE at firstname.lastname@example.org.