Student Discontent Over Disciplinary Process


First of all, we would like to commend and thank Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science Michael Johnston for his candid and enlightening criticism of the administration’s disciplinary process. It is comforting to know that at least Colgate’s professors are looking out for the interests of their students. As members of the Sigma Chi fraternity, we found his comments particularly relevant, as we are currently under investigation by the school. The assessment of Colgate’s disciplinary process exposes the large gap between the school’s stated goals and actual conduct. 

“[Colgate] University recognizes the need to protect the inviolability of the student’s personal and civil rights: specifically, the right to be secure in one’s person, speech, living quarters, papers, and effects against unreasonable search and seizure; and the freedom from disciplinary sanction except by due process, with avenues of recourse available when a student claims to have been subjected to prejudicious, discriminatory, or capricious treatment.”

– Colgate University Student Handbook 2014-2015, p. 153.

The university has stated goals to protect students’ personal and civil rights. The recent student protest showed that Colgate does try to follow through on this commitment. However, it is clear that the university is not committed to protecting students’ right to “freedom from disciplinary sanction except by due process.” Vice President and Dean of the College Suzy Nelson and Associate Dean for Conduct Kim Taylor’s response was laconic and struggled to address any of Professor Johnston’s points in a meaningful way. 

Their response states that, “administrative proceedings, where students, staff and faculty sit side-by-side and discuss matters related to ethical behavior and community values, are another way in which students learn.” As Johnston’s article points out, the Student Conduct Board is not a side-by-side discussion; rather it is an adversarial, face-to-face trial with a distinct accuser and accused. The Deans also claim that, “Colgate’s Student Conduct Board process is designed to be fair to all parties affected by a case.” This may be true in cases where both parties are students, student organizations, etc., but if the school is either the accuser or the accused, then this hardly seems like a fair system.

This problem is worsened by the fact that the “standard of proof is much higher for a criminal proceeding” than for a Student Conduct Board decision. The “preponderance of the evidence standard” appears logical in principle unless the accuser is the school itself. If that is the case, then would the school’s interest in a hearing have no effect on its outcome?

Nelson and Taylor noted several things Colgate does not have the legal power to do that distinguish its disciplinary process from criminal proceedings, including the inability to compel witness testimony and to gather evidence in a way that is similar to law enforcement. If Colgate does not have the legal power to compel witness testimony, then why do they do it so frequently? Even without the legal power to do so, Colgate still manages to obtain testimonies by threatening students with suspension or expulsion. 

Finally, the suggestion that we have “a disciplinary system that enables Colgate to serve the interests of the entire campus community in a timely, effective manner” is a false pretense to due process. Colgate simply does not do this. Over the years there have been a wide range of investigations drawn out over months, even for multiple semesters. For example, our fraternity is currently under investigation by the university. This investigation has gone on for 27 days with chapter operations suspended and no indication that the investigation is being pursued in an expedient manner. We have, for all intents and purposes, been assumed guilty. This investigation has certainly been handled capriciously and by the school’s standard of “freedom to disciplinary sanction except by due process.” Therefore, we already have good reason to appeal. 

Nelson and Taylor insist that “if a student believes a procedural error has occurred, discovers new information or believes the sanction to be inappropriate, he or she has a right of appeal.” However, since we are being treated as if we are guilty prior to any interaction with the Conduct Board, the right to appeal an inappropriate sanction is a moot point. Our case is just one of many that have demonstrated the administration’s lack of a commitment to due process and exemplifies several of the flaws that Johnston identified in Colgate’s disciplinary process.