Overdue COS Reform

by Michael Herman | 10/10/07 11:41pm

The Committee on Standards Task Force, of which I am a member, and which has supported this op-ed, welcomes the news that Acting Dean of the College Dan Nelson has decided to reverse his past decision to delay consideration of the task force's proposals until a permanent dean assumes office in January ("Nelson to Convene New COS Committee," Oct. 5). This newspaper reported that Nelson will authorize the creation of a COS review committee immediately. While we welcome this appropriate reversal of Nelson's past decision, we question why Nelson waited until now -- when all but one of the task force members have graduated -- to reverse his past decision, and we hope that Nelson will fulfill his promise of involving task force members in the COS review process. Furthermore, we urge those people who make up the review committee to be fully aware of the need to improve COS in light of the findings and recommendations found in the task force report.

In our report, which is still available on the Student Assembly website, we found that COS reform was necessary because students were "fearful" that "their experience at Dartmouth could be ruined by the unjust outcome of a COS hearing."

We hope that the review committee will seriously consider implementing all of our recommendations, especially our proposals to increase the burden of proof to "clear and convincing evidence" and to allow the accused to directly question witnesses. We found that disciplinary regimes that include these two provisions have received the highest accolades in literature on higher education.

The task force's recommendations were overwhelmingly approved by the Student Assembly, by a vote of 30-3. This newspaper's editorial board also endorsed the recommendations, ("Justice, Due Process and Sexual Assault," Oct. 20, 2006), calling them "crucial" to "correct the radical departures from due process by which Dartmouth students are currently judged within the Dartmouth community."

When we submitted our proposal to Nelson in hopes that he would immediately convene the kind of review committee that he just announced last week, we were told that he could not take any action on our proposals because he was an acting dean. When we told him that all but one of the task force members would be graduating in 2007 and asked if he could start the process and then simply have the committee report to the new dean -- which is what he decided to do last week -- Nelson told us that he would not want to impose such a committee on the new dean. He told The Dartmouth ("Nelson to Postpone Action on COS Reform," Nov. 8, 2006), that it would be "presumptuous of me as acting dean to put [a review] process in motion." He also said that "that review is something that should happen under the auspices of whoever is next appointed dean of the College." Why, then, did Nelson reverse his decision and put a review process in motion, even though the new dean will not assume his office until January?

Perhaps Nelson was convinced to change his mind by the recent trustee election, which saw COS reform playing a major role with both major candidates disagreeing with Nelson's decision and endorsing many task force recommendations. Trustee candidate Sandy Alderson '69, for example, supported the recommendations and wrote on his website that COS proceedings "are a source of distrust between students and the administration that can remain following graduation" and that delaying consideration of our proposals is "corrosive" to the "bond of trust that should exist between students and administrators." Stephen Smith '88, the eventual winner of that election, also supported immediate consideration and adoption of our proposals. He wrote on his website that Nelson's decision to delay their consideration until task force members have graduated amounted to telling students who have a reasoned proposal to the administration to "shut up and graduate." We hope that Nelson's reversal was not prompted by the graduation of all but one of the task force members.

At worst, Nelson's reversal is a way of making sure that the review does not have to confront knowledgeable and passionate people who spent the better part of a year researching this issue. At best, he belatedly changed his mind, perhaps as a result of the prominence of COS reform in the trustee election. Nonetheless, the careful consideration and implementation of the task force's recommendations by the review committee would allow Dartmouth's disciplinary system to provide the greatest amount of procedural fairness and would lessen Dartmouth students' negative opinion of the COS process. We hope the review committee will draw upon the resources that task force members can provide in assisting them in their review of Dartmouth's flawed disciplinary system.

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