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The Committee on Discipline needs reforms

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Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian

Content Warning: The following article contains mention of death and suicide.

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At Stanford, discussion has been swirling about the culture of “worry and dread” created by Stanford’s disciplinary body, which has gotten renewed discussion after a student suicide that some have linked to a disciplinary process. Amid that discussion, we should also assess the practices of Princeton’s equivalent body, the Committee on Discipline (COD).

Less well-known than Princeton’s Honor Committee, the COD judges academic violations and investigates other breaches of University policy, playing an important role in holding students accountable for their actions. But its structure is flawed throughout: some involved with the COD have raised concerns around the committee’s impartiality and its structure, and accused students suffer a process which doesn’t adequately accommodate their wellbeing. As a result, we call for a reexamination of the COD’s processes to ensure impartial judgment and bolstered mental health support.

The COD, composed of six faculty members, a College dean (this past year, Dean Kathleen Deignan), and eight undergraduate students, is charged with investigating and adjudicating practically every violation of Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities other than rules related to examinations (which the Honor Committee adjudicates). They cover everything from alcohol-related violations to situations of academic misconduct that occur outside of exams, dealing with more cases of academic violations than the Honor Committee each year.

There are structural problems with the Committee on Discipline. For members of the COD, the line between prosecutor and judge is blurred. Members act in a dual capacity: as prosecutors, they question the accused student, and as judges, they decide whether or not the student violated a rule. When these members ask their questions, they may become convinced by their own arguments and lines of reasoning when they make their verdict. This dual role further threatens their ability to judge fairly.

One current member of the committee, granted anonymity to speak about internal COD discussions, made serious allegations about how far this may go in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ The current member noted that certain Committee members, especially faculty, appear to lack “even a pretense of impartiality” during Committee hearings. According to the member, this plays out in the “extremely leading questions” posed to students by faculty on the Committee, questions which they believe take for granted that “the student is guilty and responsible for the violation.” Indeed, the member said they have often felt pressured to go into hearings with the assumption that the student is guilty, claiming they have been encouraged in pre-hearing meetings to prepare questions derived from a presumption of guilt.

In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ Deignan wrote that “the Committee is explicitly told not to ask leading questions and to refrain from drawing any conclusions until they have heard from all parties during the hearing. We have not witnessed any student member of the Committee being pressured to assume anything about the facts until all information has been considered.”

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Others have questioned whether the committee is truly impartial. Lecturer in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) Stanley Katz has repeatedly criticized the COD in the past for bias against defendants and a seeming presumption of guilt. When the COD eschews their responsibility to presume innocence until convinced otherwise and take on the dual roles of judge and prosecutor, they compromise the legitimacy of the disciplinary process and betray the trust of the student community.

In recent years, the COD has certainly adopted reforms, adding less-severe options to its list of punishments in 2017 and permitting Peer Representatives to advise and aid accused students through the disciplinary process in 2022. But these reforms target other issues, and do not seek to address the question of impartiality.

Further, they aren’t enough to mitigate the mental health burdens associated with the disciplinary process. The COD treats disciplinary cases as learning opportunities for students accused of violating University policy. But students put through its grueling disciplinary process often suffer severe blows to their mental health, rendering any possible education impossible. Deignan said in a statement to the ‘Prince’ that when students admit to misconduct in a hearing, that “prompts the student to reflect on their actions.” The COD assigns sanctions to students with a similar intent: according to Deignan, “sanctions are not simply punitive, they are also intended to be educational.”

Deignan’s argument fails to recognize the reasons for which students violate University policy in the first place. For one, students who violate University policy, especially academic rules, often do so because they feel they have no other choice, a feeling compounded by other stressors in their lives. In such a circumstance, it is difficult to see how a student could be in a position to “reflect” on their behavior, as Deignan proposes. Not to mention that the manner in which the COD responds to academic violations merely puts students who may already feel overwhelmed or depressed into further misery through its taxing process.

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The COD does report taking steps to accommodate any mental health struggles of accused students. For instance, according to Deignan, investigators for the Committee receive training on how to recognize students in need of additional support, and make sure to “encourage students to utilize the support resources both at CPS and in their residential college.” During hearings, the COD makes additional accommodations. However, as previous ‘Prince’ reporting on the Honor Committee indicates, many students under investigation do not feel comfortable seeking help from sources like CPS, feeling a “lack of trust” in University support systems after their accusation. Students accused under the COD, especially in similar academic cases, would likely feel no differently.

That’s why the COD needs further reforms. In 2017, a specially-convened Disciplinary Review Committee examined COD’s proceedings and recommended a number of changes, many of which were adopted. In the short term, we think it’s time for another review, one that focuses on the issues of impartiality and mental health, one that can mitigate the damage we described above. We recognize some of the inherent stressors that come with a disciplinary process. But right now, the University isn’t doing enough to mitigate those stressors, or to ensure a fair process. Stanford’s disciplinary process failed its students. We call for an examination of the Committee on Discipline to ensure that Princeton’s is not doing the same.

Mohan Setty-Charity is a rising senior in the economics department. He grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, and can be reached at ms99@princeton.edu.

Contributing columnist Alex Norbrook (he/him) is a rising sophomore from Baltimore, Maryland, intending to major in anthropology, history or politics. He can be reached at alexnorbrook@princeton.edu.

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