Most undergraduates will tell you that there are problems with Princeton's disciplinary system. Hundreds of students are put on probation every year. For many of those students, especially the freshman and sophomores, the disciplinary system which assigns them their penalties is perceived as fundamentally unfair and unjust. We solicited student input on the disciplinary process, and the response was overwhelming: Students feel that change is necessary.
The Residential College Disciplinary Board (RCDB) hears cases involving infractions committed by underclassmen living in the residential colleges, and consists of the five Directors of Studies of the colleges and Associate Deans of Undergraduate Students Hilary Herbold and Dean Maria Flores-Mills. In contrast to other disciplinary bodies at the University, students are not allowed to be present at the RCDB hearings where their cases are decided and penalties assigned.
The RCDB does not afford students many of the opportunities that are often considered rights of people accused of an offense. For accused students, the RCDB process begins with an informal meeting with their director of studies. As it is considered an "informal" meeting, the directors of studies are not under any formal obligations, such as notifying students of the specific charges against them. These meetings are not recorded, and thus the director of studies is the final arbiter on what was discussed. If this meeting was unfair, students have no recourse.
Students feel they are unable to provide any information that might help them since this informal conversation is the only opportunity for students to present their cases. The information gathered here by the director of studies is the only information from the accused student's side that will, or rather may, be presented to the RCDB, and, even then, the final decision as to what information will be presented rests with the director of studies. The only representation a student has before the RCDB is thus the director of studies who is also responsible for investigating the alleged infraction. Students have the option of submitting a written statement, but nowhere does Rights, Rules, Responsibilities mandate that this statement be read at all. And given that the meetings of the RCDB are secret, it is impossible to know whether these statements are taken into account, or to what extent the directors of studies, who are bringing an accused student's case for adjudication undermine that student's statement. There is the potential for a conflict of interests here, and students should not have to rely on the "good word" of the person who investigated them to represent them. In any event, the RCDB has also been known to decide students' punishments even before they have had a chance to submit their statements.
There is also no mechanism to ensure that the RCDB doesn't consider improperly obtained evidence. If a Public Safety officer lies to a student, then any information gained by such means can still be used in the discipline process. Such evidence, according to students' reports, is routinely the basis of the RCDB's convictions. We believe it is in the best interests of the University to ensure that all its agents are being truthful at all times. The best way to ensure this happens is to prevent improperly obtained information from reaching the RCDB.
Delays in notifying students about reports and penalties are common. This is particularly troubling since students only have one week to appeal. If a notice is sent out a few days late, then a student may have lost the right to appeal.
We believe that several simple changes can address many student concerns. We merely ask that students be formally notified of the charges against them, be allowed to represent themselves directly to the person or people who will adjudicate their guilt or innocence, be informed in a timely manner of the outcome of their case, be protected from the use of illegally obtained evidence and be given full information about the rights and processes of appeal after their cases have been heard.
University officials have often stated that the RCDB only deals with "minor" infractions and thus reform is not urgent. This seems to directly contradict what they say to students. In fact, for most students, probation is not a minor issue. It remains on their record and can affect admission to graduate schools. More importantly, at an institution like Princeton with a "Three Strike" alcohol and drug policy, "minor" infractions often have a way of proving not so minor. After two open container violations, a third results in suspension — not a minor penalty.
The University knows how to give students a fair hearing for all infractions, but many students feel they RCDB does not. It's time for students to start asking why. Jim Williamson is the president of the Class of 2007 and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Zachary Squire is the public safety and governance liason of the Undergraduate Life Committee and may be reached at email@example.com.
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