Feb. 7, 2007

Campus Code angst: Forum speakers question whether rules of conduct and judicial process should be changed

Concerns and criticisms about proposed changes to the Campus Code of Conduct and Cornell's judicial system were voiced at a Feb. 5 public forum in Willard Straight Hall's Memorial Room. The issues ranged from judicial procedure to individual rights.

"I've seen every aspect of this process, and over 11 years I have seen the process work. ... This code works and works very well," said Scott Miller '90, Law '95, an adjunct professor at the Law School who has advocated for students and faculty as a lawyer.

Extensive revisions to the judicial system and the code were proposed in an April 2006 report by former Cornell Judicial Administrator Barbara Krause, now at Skidmore College. The Codes and Judicial Committee (CJC) has been delegated by the University Assembly (UA) to solicit campus community input to the proposed changes to the code, which defines appropriate behavior and disciplinary actions required when rules are broken. Among its many other responsibilities, the UA has authority over the Campus Code of Conduct and the Statement of Student Rights. The CJC is accepting comments on the revisions until Feb. 15 before presenting them to the UA by March 7.

President David Skorton, who must decide whether to amend, revise or replace the current code, acknowledged the concerns about the proposed changes in an e-mail to the campus community on Feb. 5. "Many believe that the outcomes of the campus disciplinary system should be more transparent," the e-mail stated.

Concerns raised at the forum ranged from the need to change the current judicial system at Cornell to proposed changes regarding access to attorneys or advisers in the judicial process, sufficiency of evidence and the right of the accused to remain silent. About 60 faculty members, staff and students attended the forum, and more than a dozen people stepped up to the microphone to voice their concerns. Comment cards and laptops also were provided for attendees to submit their opinions.

"Is it possible to go in and cough up a confession, and [then] could this be used in a criminal court of law?" asked Robin Messing, an Olin Library staff member. "Could those who work at Cornell have less in First Amendment rights than those not affiliated with Cornell?"

In response, CJC member and law professor Kevin Clermont said of the proposed changes, "If you are silent, it can be taken into account, especially given the preponderance of evidence standard. I assume you could be acquitted off campus and convicted here due to the different standards of proof."

Grayson Fahrner '08, a former Student Assembly representative, said, "It's really tough to expect 13,000 students to look at that and say, 'I love this school, so why are these actions being done?'"

The CJC is focusing on a handful of key areas of the report. They are:

Janet Vertesi, president of the Graduate and Professional Students Assembly, said she was involved in early discussions of the code review with Krause and that the concerns then included the code's complexity and negative "thou shalt not" tone.

"It is more readable," she said of the Krause report. "That spirit should be maintained in whatever changes you propose."

In his Feb. 5 e-mail message, Skorton asked: "Does the Cornell community prefer to retain a code, rooted in a historically significant time at Cornell, which borrows from criminal law? Should the code be phased out in favor of rules that emphasize the University's educational mission or do you think its current tenets remain valid today? Should the jurisdiction of the code reach beyond the campus?"

His message continued: "Some believe that the University should have a much lower tolerance for violence, while others feel that delays in resolving cases, especially serious cases, are the major concern."

The CJC encourages further comment from the Cornell community, which can be submitted online at http://assembly.cornell.edu/KrauseReportComments/Home.