Editorial | UI discipline under review

Editorial | UI discipline under review

How much of an opportunity are university students allowed to defend themselves?

A most interesting case concerning college disciplinary hearings — one with potentially serious precedent-setting possibilities — is pending before U.S. Judge Colin Bruce at Urbana's federal courthouse.

The issue involves the extent to which institutions like the University of Illinois must go to ensure fair hearings for students accused of violating disciplinary rules, particularly when they conduct what are essentially quasicriminal investigations and trials.

In this case, one unidentified student — UI senior Jane Roe — alleged that another unidentified student — John Doe — sexually assaulted her following an evening of drinking. Roe contends she was too intoxicated to give consent.

In 2016, Doe was found guilty in a UI disciplinary forum and dismissed from the UI for 21 / 2 years. He filed a federal lawsuit challenging the dismissal, alleging that he was subjected to a star-chamber investigative process and trial that did not allow him the opportunity to present a meaningful defense.

This sort of controversy is not new to American colleges and universities.

Indeed, disputes of this nature commonly occur when students consume excessive amounts of alcohol and follow it with sexual activity that may — or may not — be consensual. Further, these institutions too often get themselves in trouble when disciplined students take their complaints about campus due process — or the lack of it — to the courts.

The potential problems here are obvious to those who are not willfully blind.

For starters, what the female student alleges in this case — if the facts are on her side — is a Class X felony under Illinois law that carries a mandatory prison term.

That, of course, raises two questions.

What are officials at the UI and elsewhere doing conducting quasicriminal probes for which they have no real aptitude or training?

If a crime has been alleged, why isn't the criminal justice system involved?

There is, of course, a difference between student disciplinary hearings and the criminal courts, including a burden of proof less than the "beyond the reasonable doubt" standard that applies in the criminal courts.

But Doe contends the UI's procedural process was farcical, that he wasn't allowed to attend the hearing where his fate would be determined and barred from a meaningful opportunity to defend himself.

The UI, of course, argues that the law affords the university considerable discretion in how it oversees student discipline and that its procedures regarding Doe and his defense were legally sufficient.

Everyone will have to wait and see what Judge Bruce says about that. He has already indicated concerns about Doe's claim, describing as "unsettling" Doe's descriptions of the limits put on his ability to question witnesses.

Other institutions like the UI also have rules similar to what Doe describes, and they've paid a price for it when the controversy moves off campus and into courts of law.

In that context, it would behoove the UI to re-examine its procedural process rather than simply defend the status quo at all costs.

Those who follow the politics of higher education know the Obama administration put heavy pressure on colleges and universities to adopt what have proven to be problematic rules on student discipline. The current U.S. Department of Education is easing up on that approach, but to what end is unclear.

Bruce's decision, particularly if it's challenged on appeal, will help to shed light on this vexing issue.

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