Withholding of Report on Harvard Disciplinary Body Shows Hypocrisy

November 20, 2009

The Harvard College Administrative Board—the school’s main disciplinary body that applies and enforces "undergraduate academic regulations and standards of social conduct"—has long been the subject of calls for reform. Potential conflicts of interest in student representation, the intimidating structure of Ad Board hearings, and a general lack of transparency have been cited by students and faculty members, as well as campus outsiders, as imperatives for change.

So in November 2007 when administrators announced the creation of an Administrative Board Review Committee, it was seen as a major step forward. A year and a half later, the committee’s report was presented at the final meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences for the 2008-09 academic year in May. Dean of Harvard College Evelynn M. Hammonds told faculty that a reemphasis on student needs would help to dispel the Ad Board’s negative perceptions.

The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, reported at the time that in response to a professor’s question, Hammonds said the report would be released to the public. Her recent denial of such a statement signals that, despite the enactment of some reforms, negative perceptions may continue to hamper the Ad Board’s credibility.

To Hammonds’ credit, some reforms have been implemented. The role of resident deans—long-criticized for having the power to both refer cases to the disciplinary tribunal and act as accused students’ advisors through the process—was clarified. The Board Secretary now notifies students that a case has been initiated (formerly the responsibility of the resident dean), and advisors, who may be chosen from the faculty if a student is uncomfortable with his or her resident dean, can now pause Board proceedings and add relevant information upon students’ request.

Furthermore, in October, decisions over student expulsions were transferred from the full Faculty of Arts and Sciences to an 18-member Faculty Council. Some faculty members previously said it was difficult to familiarize themselves with case details, thus compromising their ability to make an informed judgment.

While these reforms have generally been met with approval, students and faculty are wondering about other recommendations from the Ad Board Review Committee’s report. According to a November 6 article in The Crimson, the Harvard community was misled into thinking the release would be made public.

In response to a question posed by former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 at the final Faculty meeting of the academic year in May, Hammonds informed those in attendance that she would release the report.

But in a meeting with The Crimson last Thursday, Hammonds said that the report, which she commissioned, would not be made public.

"I thought I had said no, but I guess I said yes. I don’t know if I was nervous or what," Hammonds said.

This back-and-forth has been widely condemned, even by members of the Review Committee. "I think the intent should be to get the report out," Donald H. Pfister, committee member and botany professor, told The Crimson. Pfister said that improved methods of addressing student plagiarism—updated to be more compatible with the digital age—were part of the report’s proposals, but the community has not yet been able to consider these because of the non-disclosure.

Hammonds, in defense of withholding the report, told The Crimson that some recommendations were meant to be considered over a long-term period, and that administrators should not "put those out for discussion without having a process for thinking about how we want to deal with those discussions and a process for having discussions and perhaps looking at legislation."

For critics of the Ad Board, this lack of transparency is a central issue—not only with regard to the Review Committee’s report, but more generally with Ad Board proceedings. "Because of the nature of disciplinary cases, little information can be released; as a result, few people can form a comprehensive understanding of the system, meaning that cases that may very well be outliers often come to be seen as typical," according to a March 12, 2008, Crimson article. In fact, in some cases, it can be a separate offense for an accused student to discuss Ad Board proceedings.

For these reasons and others, FIRE Co-founder and Chairman Harvey Silverglate has referred to the Ad Board as "one of the worst, if not the worst student disciplinary tribunals in the country." Harvey, a graduate of Harvard Law School, has been a vocal critic of the Ad Board (see, for example, his treatment of the Ad Board’s confidentiality restrictions in The Shadow University; click here to open the excerpt as a PDF).

In March 2008, Harvey hosted a discussion with undergraduates that emphasized Ad Board reform. He criticized the level of secrecy surrounding the disciplinary process, the "irrational" fact-finding procedures, and the lack of student representation on the decision-making body.

Though these concerns have yet to be addressed, the already-implemented reforms are a step in the right direction. But discussions of due process reform are stunted when administrators renege on promises to make public long-awaited reports. How, for instance, can a student be punished for violating "honesty" regulations when administrators aren’t necessarily held to the same standard?

Schools:  Harvard University