Vote on Evidentiary Rule a Win for Justice
Published: Friday, April 27, 2012
Updated: Friday, April 27, 2012 18:04
Georgetown’s Disciplinary Review Committee passed a resolution yesterday recommending that the burden of proof for all disciplinary actions be raised from the current standard of “more likely than not” to “clear and convincing.”
It was a vote long overdue, but more importantly, it was a decision that will improve the lives of students and the community as a whole by making the disciplinary process more just and consistent with Georgetown’s mission.
In the past, when a student was accused of violating the Code of Student Conduct, administrators judged his or her responsibility using the “more likely than not” standard. As the code states: “The Complainant must present persuasive evidence that establishes that the Respondent ‘more likely than not’ violated the Code of Student Conduct.” This standard applied both when the university or another student accused a student of wrongdoing.
The problem with the former standard is that it was inherently arbitrary. “More likely than not” meant that if an administrator felt there was a 51 percent chance or higher that a student was responsible for a given violation, he or she was obligated to find the student responsible.
With virtually no burden of proof, it is unrealistic to think that administrators’ interpretations of the standard of guilt will be identical.
The “more likely than not” standard also left an unacceptable amount of room for uncertainty and individual error when making disciplinary decisions. Frequently, students face sanctions that can be detrimental to their futures, ranging from loss of study abroad privileges to suspension or even expulsion. With such weighty consequences hanging in the balance, institutionally-facilitated uncertainty and inconsistency are simply unacceptable.
To remove the flaws inherent in a “more likely than not” standard, the Georgetown University Student Association successfully lobbied the DRC for the adoption of “clear and convincing” as the new measure of evidence for determining liability. With this new standard comes a focus on concrete evidence rather than probability. The Code of Conduct’s Ethos Statement maintains that “as a Catholic and Jesuit community, Georgetown places special emphasis on the dignity and worth of every person and the love of truth.” A higher standard of proof was necessary to preserve our student rights, our dignity and our love for truth.
Peer institutions such as Duke, Cornell and Penn, along with the Georgetown University Law Center, already use this “clear and convincing” standard. In fact, here at Georgetown this requirement was already the code’s standard for appeals. While students were being held responsible on the probability that they “more likely than not” violated the code, they were, and still are, expected to reach the “clear and convincing” threshold of evidence to prove their case was mishandled. This imbalance is but one way the code used to be tilted against students — the adoption of the new standard is a way to rebalance the scales.
With the greater certainty offered by the new standard, students can have more confidence in the ability of the disciplinary process to result in just outcomes. In the past students have often felt helpless in the face of a conviction, and students who were wrongly found responsible were often dissuaded from appealing because of the steeper burden of proof that they would face. Removing this imbalance will improve the integrity of the process.
What’s more, the “clear and convincing” standard will help the hall directors, administrators and students on the Residential Judicial Council who hear disciplinary cases. Adjudicators will no longer be obligated to make narrow and often insufficiently informed calls about whether or not it is probable that a student is guilty of what he has been accused of — they will have to be absolutely certain.
If all goes as expected, the new standard of proof should result in fewer convictions. Georgetown should be comfortable with this outcome. Preserving the dignity of students and the university’s commitment to truth must be the chief aim as we, as a community, work to become better men and women for others.
Now that the DRC has voted to raise the burden of proof, the recommendation will go to Todd Olson, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, for a final decision. We hope that Olson accepts the recommendations of the DRC. If the university’s standard of proof remains arbitrary and capricious, the integrity of the entire disciplinary system is compromised, and it will neither garner the respect nor contribute to the education of students. The adoption of the “clear and convincing” standard is a major victory for students and for the integrity of the disciplinary process.
JAMES PICKENS is a senior in the College. He is the founder and former Co-Director of the Student Advocacy Office.
SAM SCHNEIDER is a junior in the College. He is the current Co-Director of the Student Advocacy Office and a member of The Hoya’s Board of Directors.