Verbum Ultimum: Demystifying Judicial Affairs

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 2/14/13 11:00pm

With the impending departure of undergraduate judicial affairs director Nathan Miller at the end of this academic year, the College is in a position to make an influential hire. As the person who deals with student misconduct and disciplinary action, the undergraduate judicial affairs director must uphold rules in a transparent manner and focus on critical and sensitive aspects of student life. Given that a search committee within the Dean of the College's office is set to review applications for the job ("Undergraduate Judicial Affairs seeks director," Feb. 12), we hope that the College makes the most of this opportunity by appointing someone who will revamp what is regarded by most students as an obscure and intimidating system.

The office of undergraduate judicial affairs oversees one of the most uncomfortable realms of college administration: student discipline. The College claims to seek a candidate with "superior ability to exercise sound judgment and demonstrate cultural competence," as the director must adhere to the College's Student Handbook with the knowledge that the outcome of a Committee on Standards or Organizational Adjudication Committee hearing can have powerful consequences for individuals and groups alike. We commend the College for its interest in selecting a director who wants to interact with the student body and is prepared to respond to queries from individuals and their families. But it is troubling that the office itself does not anticipate any reforms with the appointment of a new director.

Undergraduate judicial affairs is not a transparent or efficient institution in its current state. While students can access information on the office's website to help familiarize themselves with the process of a COS or OAC hearing, it is unlikely that they will feel adequately prepared. Furthermore, the chair wields enormous discretion over everything from procedural rulings to the people allowed to be present at hearings, which are often held in small rooms, seemingly so that organization members, friends and witnesses are intentionally excluded from the proceedings. Perhaps most importantly, the committee requires only a "preponderance of evidence" to arrive at a guilty ruling. This is a significantly lower burden of proof than state or federal standards, which require prosecutors to prove a defendant's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."

It is clear that this adjudication process is in need of serious reform. That the current process draws complaints of a lack of professionalism and a standardized approach across all hearings suggests that the College must do better. With new leadership should come a new emphasis on transparency beginning with more mock hearings and more regular reporting of hearing verdicts.

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