April 20, 2010

An easy, yet important decision

To improve biased and inconsistent sexual assault policy, vote ‘No’ on referendum

Today students will begin voting in Student Government elections. By and large, such elections go hand-in-hand with apathy. But there is one thing on the ballot that deserves far more than the usual indifference: Referendum 1, which would send a message to the administration that students do not accept the current, crucially flawed sexual assault disciplinary policy.

The referendum is simple enough. It asks, “Should faculty from a student’s own unit sit on the disciplinary hearing board of a sexual assault case involving the student (as is currently the policy)?” A “no” vote on Referendum 1 is a vote to change policy. The current system defies common sense, ensuring that sexual assault cases are adjudicated not necessarily by an impartial committee, but rather by faculty members exclusively from the accused’s own academic division.

For this column, I spoke to Deputy Dean of Students Martina Munsters and Vice President and Dean of Students in the University Kim Goff-Crews, both of whom declined to take a position on whether sexual assault discipline should be centralized—that is, whether Referendum 1 should be voted for or against. They said that their role was not to advocate for or against a policy change, but rather to support students and their process of creating the referendum. To the extent that they “argued” for the current policy, they did so only in reporting others’ arguments. That’s what they told me, but my own view is that both administrators seriously blurred this line—the line between echoing others’ views and advocating their own—in many instances that I will highlight.

Flaws with the status quo are not hard to find. Most fundamentally, the policy defies impartiality. In defense of the policy, Munsters said, “Faculty have [sic] a real st—involvement in a student.” What she was about to say instead of “involvement” was “stake.” She corrected herself, but was right the first time—faculty do have a stake in their students, and that’s exactly why those same faculty should not sit on a committee that helps determine students’ future at the U of C.

It’s not hard to imagine a situation in which someone accused of sexual assault is not given impartial treatment by his own faculty. Consider a student who is exceptionally talented in his field; the loss of that student would be harmful to the academic division. Should the faculty that would bear some of that harm really be involved in that case?

On that point, Goff-Crews told me, “Most faculty really want to do the right thing.” This is undoubtedly true, but Goff-Crews is wrong when she says that this potential bias is “less of an issue when you’re actually in one of those cases than students think.” But just because faculty “want to do the right thing” doesn’t mean that hidden biases and potential conflicts of interest won’t affect how they view a case—or, ultimately, what they consider “the right thing” to be.

The current policy was borne out of a committee from several years ago that determined that discipline should be handled within a specific department, the idea being that certain disciplinary issues ought to be dealt with differently depending on the context of a student’s academic division. An example of this, offered by Munsters, is plagiarism cases, where citation standards might be different across academic divisions, or where more leniency might be granted to a first-year in the College than a seasoned grad student. This might make good sense when it comes to academic issues like plagiarism, but how would differences in academic divisions affect how a sexual assault case should be handled? I asked Goff-Crews this question a couple of times, and all she could say was, “It can, but I can’t give a specific example.” Munsters was similarly stumped, failing to cite a single instance in which this might be the case.

In an interview, Ursula Wagner—a second- year student at the SSA, and a member of the Working Group on Sexual Assault Policy, which helped write the referendum—also pointed out how the current policy can compromise consistency. In one case before the Divinity School, Wagner said that committee members were “concerned about saving,” in a spiritual sense, the accused. As Wagner argues, this goal might be specific to the types of faculty who are part of the Div School, as compared to the faculty at, say, the business school. Regardless of the merits of such an approach, it should be applied consistently across all sexual assault cases. Moreover, there is real value to bringing perspectives from all different disciplines to any committee, instead of having members consist solely of professors from a single discipline.

Wagner also contends that, in many cases, the current policy doesn’t allow for diversity among members of the disciplinary committees. In certain departments—the Physical Sciences Division, Wagner said, for example—finding enough female professors to ensure gender balance on the disciplinary committee is a real challenge.

The arguments against the current policy are numerous and persuasive; the arguments in its favor are incoherent or nonexistent. It’s at once an easy choice and an important one: Vote “no” on Referendum 1.

—Matt Barnum is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Psychology.