A Guide to Student Discipline in the SUNY System

If you are one of the more than 1.3 million students that attend a SUNY (State University of New York) institution, it's important you know how your school deals with disciplinary matters. No one ever expects to face an accusation of misconduct, but thousands do each year, and if it turns out you're one of them, the more you know, the better able you'll be to defend yourself.

An Introduction

College isn't what it used to be. Gone are the days when you could start a food fight in the cafeteria with impunity or hold your rival school's mascot for ransom and expect to get away with it. Schools today take student conduct seriously.

Maybe sometimes they take it too seriously. We all want safe campuses where education is the priority. Still, all work and no play make Jack and Jill dull undergraduates.

It seems like every classroom and corridor these days has a video camera, and even the smallest infraction can get you put on probation. You have to watch what you do; you have to watch what you say. In fact, staying out of trouble sometimes requires a map and a compass. With that in mind, we've put together this handy guide on all things discipline-related in the State University of New York (SUNY) system. While we can't promise to keep you out of trouble, we can at least help you navigate your school's disciplinary policies so when trouble happens, you'll know what to do.

The SUNY System

SUNY, or the State University of New York, is a loose consortium of public higher education institutions serving all of New York state. When it was first established in 1948, SUNY was made up of 29 schools. Today, that number has more than doubled, rising to 64, including 14 universities, 13 four-year colleges, seven technology colleges, and 30 community colleges. Those 64 schools employ nearly 100,000 faculty and staff members who together provide an education to 1.3 million students.

SUNY is governed by its own Board of Trustees, which is made up of eighteen members, including:

  1. 15 governor-appointed members
  2. The President of the Student Assembly of SUNY
  3. The President of the University Faculty Senate
  4. The President of the Faculty Council of Community Colleges

Day-to-day operations are under the direction of an appointed Chancellor who presides over the entire system.

Yet, while they are all inter-connected, the several schools that make up the SUNY system have traditionally been largely self-governing. This is especially true when it comes to matters of student discipline. SUNY policy dictates some broad principles, such as the idea that students should have the right to free expression and accused students should be entitled to due process. Ultimately, however, the policy gives authority to the councils at each school “to make regulations governing student conduct and behavior.”

As a result, it is difficult to talk about how SUNY as a whole treats disciplinary matters. Questions about the disciplinary policies at specific schools are better answered by actually visiting those schools' websites. That said, there are some important similarities between how these colleges deal with campus problems.

Two Kinds of Misconduct

Like most American schools, SUNY schools all divide student conduct matters into two broad categories.

First, as might be expected, the SUNY colleges and universities maintain policies about academic misconduct. After all, a school's purpose is education, and allowing academic misconduct to go unpunished is one of the fastest ways to ruin a college's reputation. As distinct from “disciplinary misconduct,” academic misconduct relates specifically to how students behave as students in the classroom. Most rules relating to academic misconduct are designed to prevent students from gaining unfair advantages in completing their coursework or working towards their degrees. Examples might include banning calculators in a math course or prohibiting collaboration on end-of-semester projects in a history course.

Of course, while schools are primarily dedicated to educating students, that's not all they are. Because schools are communities of students, they must also impose broader disciplinary guidelines outside of coursework. That is, much like a town or a city, they must set limits and boundaries in terms of how students treat one another and how they behave in general towards the school itself. Most schools, for example, have specific rules forbidding acts of vandalism. Or a school may have a policy against hate speech.

Finally, there is yet another important category of student conduct related specifically to general disciplinary matters. Sexual misconduct is usually treated as its own separate form of misconduct. Many types of sexual misconduct are actually subject to federal law, under Title IX guidelines. However, since 2020, most schools, including those at SUNY, have developed additional rules for dealing with sexual offenses that no longer fit within the narrow Title IX definitions, so-called non-Title IX offenses. Sexual misconduct offenses can be anything from simple harassment to stalking, sexual assault, and even rape.

Campus Justice

It's important to remember that campus justice doesn't work the way the real justice system works. Schools aren't required to operate under the same rules as the police and the courts. In fact, university discipline uses a whole other set of terms.

  • Claimant: The accuser, who in a court of law would be the “plaintiff”
  • Respondent: The accused, who in a court of law would be “defendant”
  • Finding: Known in court as the “verdict,” this is the decision that results from the investigation and/ or hearing
  • Responsible: A “guilty” verdict. Likewise, “not responsible” corresponds to a “not guilty” verdict or “acquittal”
  • Preponderance of evidence: Schools aren't required to use the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard in deciding a student's responsibility. Virtually all use the “preponderance of evidence” standard instead. According to this standard, a decision-maker must only believe it is “more likely than not” that the respondent committed an offense in order to find them responsible.

Some schools will try to use the fact that they don't have to follow the law to deny students their due process rights. As a result, it is always a good idea to retain an attorney whenever you find yourself accused of misconduct, someone with expertise and experience in university discipline cases.

Academic Misconduct

In many ways, academic integrity is at the heart of what all colleges and universities do. That is, without some rules as to how students complete their coursework, no school can hope to maintain discipline. The bottom line is employers want to hire graduates from schools with a reputation for academic rigor. Academic misconduct rules are aimed at ensuring that rigor.

Rules

No two schools in the SUNY system offer the same set of rules for academic integrity. And yet, all of them prohibit the same basic behaviors, even if they do so use sometimes vastly different language. As a general rule, all 64 schools in the system single out two specific kinds of academic misconduct for special notice: Cheating and plagiarism.

Cheating can be defined in a number of different ways, but it typically means using any unauthorized materials to complete coursework. In other words, you and only you should be doing your work. Unauthorized materials might include:

  • Textbooks during a closed-book exam: Most professors want you to have learned the material well enough that you don't need to look up answers.
  • Course notes: Whether you've taped a crib sheet to the bill of your baseball cap or written answers in a blue book before a test, instructors usually prefer you rely on what's in your head.
  • Online resources: There are a lot of answers on the internet. Being able to find them doesn't prove what you know, though.
  • Other people: This might include something as brazen as asking someone else to take your exam for you. On the other hand, it might include something far more sophisticated, like complicated texting schemes among classmates.
  • Calculators: Any tools that let you take shortcuts are typically forbidden.
  • Advanced copies of an exam: Here again, there are many ways you might lay your hands on such materials. For instance, your sorority may keep an extensive file on professors' past tests. In any case, this is another instance of gaining an unfair advantage in completing coursework.

Just as “unauthorized materials” can mean many different things, so too “coursework” can be interpreted in several ways. Some instructors, for instance, forbid students to collaborate on homework assignments. Others restrict the use of internet materials in course projects. Ultimately, then, while the general definition of cheating may be clear enough, it is always up to a faculty member to define their own classroom rules via their syllabi. By the same token, it is up to students to have a clear understanding of just what is and isn't acceptable academic behavior in a specific course.

The second type of academic violation that gets mentioned frequently is plagiarism. Most of us recognize that plagiarism means using someone else's words or ideas without giving them proper credit. However, plagiarism isn't always as straightforward as this definition might make it seem. Some instructors, for example, regard serious lapses in citations as a form of plagiarism. Forget to include a footnote in the wrong place, and you could wind up in serious trouble. In addition, different instructors have different rules regarding how students may use internet resources in their work. Some encourage students to illustrate their ideas in papers with photographs they've found online. Others treat this as a serious ethical breach and equate it with academic misconduct. Finally, it's worth noting that plagiarism doesn't just apply to the written word. Plagiarism can also apply to artwork, musical compositions, even computer code.

Beyond cheating and plagiarism, most schools also include a list of rules that are designed to catch any kinds of academic misbehavior that don't fall neatly into one of these two categories. Binghamton’s policy, for instance, talks specifically about lab experiments and submitting “the results of another's experiments.” Stony Brook’s policy mentions “inappropriately modifying classroom or other instructional material.” The most common of these catchalls, though, include:

  • Self-plagiarism: Most schools forbid you to turn in the same work to two different classes. This includes having to retake a course. Work must always be unique to the assignment that's been given.
  • Misrepresentation: This might include making up sources for a paper or signing someone else's name on an attendance sheet.
  • Falsification: Similar to misrepresentation, falsification might mean inventing lab results, or it could mean presenting a forged doctor's note for a missed exam.
  • Defacing the work of others: More and more schools have begun to talk about sabotage as a form of academic misconduct. Whether you've ruined someone's experiment out of simple spite or because you want to change the class curve, most colleges take a dim view of such behavior.
  • Copyright ethics: Again, the rules can differ drastically from course to course and professor to professor. It's important you know how your particular instructor feels about incorporating other people's work into your own.

Academic Misconduct Procedures

SUNY schools generally treat academic misconduct as absolutely separate from other forms of misconduct and maintain completely separate procedures for dealing with these types of violations.

All schools in the system give wide latitude to instructors when it comes to defining discipline and assigning sanctions. Again, syllabi are a crucial component in this process. If something is forbidden in the syllabus, then it's difficult to argue after the fact that you weren't aware it was academic misconduct.

In addition, though, faculty members are also the front line when it comes to enforcing academic discipline. Instructors are the ones who usually notice misconduct, and so they are also the ones who usually decide on the appropriate penalties.

Sanctions are often very particular to instructors and sometimes even to particular situations. An instructor might insist a student re-write a term paper that misuses MLA citation conventions. On the other hand, the same instructor might reduce the grade on a paper that uses quotes without giving credit or fail a paper that's been largely plagiarized from online material. They might even fail the student in the course for more egregious violations like purchasing a paper from an online paper mill.

While it does make sense to let instructors make these kinds of decisions, it grants them enormous power. The problem with investing so much authority in instructors is that, at least at several SUNY schools, students have limited options when it comes to defending themselves from accusations. The fact is, professors do make mistakes. A student's writing may seem like it's improved too much between one paper and the next, and a teacher may jump to conclusions when there may be a logical explanation for what happened. When a single person controls discipline, it invites dictatorship.

Of course, all SUNY schools offer some means of appealing an instructor's decision, whether that involves asking for an administrative review by the Dean's office or participating in a formal hearing. However, often students must actively assert their rights to these remedies. Virtually every school in the system notes that when students don't protest, sanctions automatically go into effect.

Even when they do protest, they may not get a fair chance to defend themselves. For example, at SUNY, Buffalo, students aren't entitled to a hearing into academic misconduct accusations. Authority here is almost entirely invested in the hands of the instructor. There is an appeals process, but students aren't allowed to participate actively in this process. That is, they aren't invited to attend meetings, submit evidence, or suggest witnesses. Under such circumstances, committees can come to serve as nothing more than a rubber stamp for instructors' decisions.

Finally, it is important to note that all schools in the system ask that their instructors notify the administration when they've discovered academic misconduct, and all schools maintain records of misconduct. That means students who commit multiple offenses are often subject to higher sanctions. In the most serious cases, students can be put on probation, suspended, or even expelled. In addition, at some schools in the SUNY system, the administration reviews every accusation and reserves the right to modify sanctions or to add sanctions as it sees fit.

Disciplinary Misconduct

“Disciplinary misconduct” generally applies to everything that isn't academic misconduct. In short, it refers to any type of misbehavior that happens outside the confines of the classroom. One easy way of distinguishing disciplinary misconduct is that it applies more to the broader school community. These kinds of rules are more akin to the laws that govern our society, laws that are intended to allow us to coexist peacefully with one another. Most often, you can find a list in your school's Student Code of Conduct.

Rules of Disciplinary Misconduct

As with academic misconduct, each SUNY school maintains its own set of rules. However, all schools divide disciplinary misconduct into several specific categories. A school might, for instance, refer to behaviors that violate community standards as distinguished from behaviors that endanger school property.

For example, SUNY, Cortland’s Code of Conduct lists four basic categories:

  • Conduct that impacts the common good of the community: This includes everything from unauthorized duplication of a key to arson.
  • Conduct associated with personal responsibility and integrity: Here, Cortland lists such behaviors as failing to show proper student identification as well as using and abusing drugs and alcohol.
  • Conduct that violates the health and safety of an individual: Includes activities like hazing and harassment, as well as more serious activities such as assault.
  • Regulations specific to residence hall living: Includes everything from rules about noise to bans on pets and cooking appliances.

In contrast, Stony Brook lists fourteen separate kinds of violations, dividing them into categories like:

  • Respect for persons
  • Respect for property
  • Health and safety
  • Responsible use of Information Technology (IT)
  • Alcohol, drugs, and gambling

Generally, though, you can expect two types of rules no matter which SUNY school you're at rules that apply to how students treat one another and rules about how students treat the campus itself.

In addition, all schools maintain prohibitions against:

  • Possessing firearms
  • Possessing illegal drugs
  • Underage drinking
  • Hazing

Finally, you can expect that any behaviors that would be illegal off-campus, such as assault, theft, or vandalism, will be against campus rules as well. In fact, some schools go so far as to note that violations of local, state, or federal laws are violations of school policy.

Procedures in Disciplinary Misconduct Cases

All SUNY schools provide some means for responding to accusations of disciplinary misconduct, and all allow students to defend themselves at a formal hearing if the potential sanctions include suspension or expulsion. In addition, all maintain some form of the appeals process.

As with everything else, though, there is also a good deal of variation within this general framework. Ultimately, SUNY schools all utilize their own particular sets of procedures in disciplinary cases. Some schools, for instance, conduct an extensive investigation into every case and allow every student the chance at a hearing. Others separate violations into lower-level and higher-level offenses and only allow for investigations and hearings into higher-level offenses.

There are even larger differences in terms of how schools treat the various parts of an investigation. Some allow students to choose advisors who may be attorneys. Sometimes these advisors can represent their students; other times, they may only observe. Sometimes they may participate in investigative interviews; other times they may only participate in hearings. Similarly, some schools' hearing procedures involve a single official who both conducts the hearing and decides a student's responsibility. Others use panels with three or five members to hear cases. Panels might be made up only of faculty members, or they might include students and administrators as well.

Sanctions for Disciplinary Misconduct

Sanctions, too, usually depend on the specific school and on the specific violation. SUNY, Albany’s list of sanctions includes:

  • Disciplinary warning
  • Disciplinary probation
  • Terminal disciplinary probation
  • Removal from residence
  • Suspension
  • Dismissal
  • Campus restrictions
  • Restitution
  • Educational programs and service
  • Parental notification
  • Cease and desist directives
  • No contact directives

SUNY, Potsdam’s policy includes roughly similar penalties but adds a “deferred suspension” for cases where officials mitigating circumstances merit one more “final chance.”

SUNY, Empire lists only three disciplinary sanctions:

  • Written warning
  • Suspension
  • Expulsion

Whatever the particular sanction, it is important to recognize that all penalties can have larger repercussions on your academic career. It isn't just that you may no longer be allowed to live on campus. You may also find that a finding of “responsible” affects your financial aid package, your graduate school prospects, even your job applications.

Sexual Misconduct

SUNY schools all treat sexual misconduct as a very special type of disciplinary misconduct. In part, that's because the nature of the offense is unique. In addition, though, it's treated differently because this particular kind of offense is subject to government regulation.

Title IX

For the most part, Title IX procedures are set by federal guidelines. Schools do have some say in how specific processes work. For example, some schools appoint a single individual to decide a respondent's responsibility. Others use a panel or committee to make this decision. Generally, though, the process works the same everywhere.

  • Official complaints originate in the Title IX Coordinator's Office and must be signed by either a complainant or the Title IX Coordinator.
  • Once an accusation has been made, the Title IX Coordinator must notify the respondent and apprise them of their rights. Among these, they have the right to be presumed not responsible and the right to choose an advisor who may be an attorney.
  • The Title IX Coordinator appoints an investigator. This person interviews both parties, collects physical evidence, and identifies potential witnesses.
  • At the conclusion of the investigation, the investigator completes a summary report. Both sides of the case have the opportunity to make suggestions for revising this document before it is eventually forwarded back to the Title IX Coordinator's office.
  • The Coordinator then sets a date for a live hearing into the case and appoints a Hearing Officer to oversee it. This individual may hear the case themselves, or they may appoint a panel to hear it.
  • The hearing must be conducted live, but either side may request that it be held via closed-circuit video. After opening statements, each side has the opportunity to present their case, introducing evidence and calling witnesses. In addition, both sides have the right to cross-examine witnesses and the other party. At some schools, advisors ask questions directly; at other schools, all questions must first be submitted to the Hearing Official before they are asked.
  • At the conclusion of the hearing, the decision-maker(s) must decide the respondent's responsibility for the incident. Most schools use the “preponderance of evidence” standard to make this decision. According to this standard, they must believe a violation is “more likely than not” to have occurred. Decision-maker(s) also decide on sanctions if these are appropriate.
  • Finally, both sides have a limited right to appeal the findings in Title IX cases. Usually, they have a short time period in which to do this, and appeals must be based on very specific circumstances, such as the discovery of new evidence or a clear lapse in Title IX procedures. In addition, some schools allow students to accept the hearing findings but raise questions about the imposed sanction.

Non-Title IX

The current Title IX guidelines were only implemented in 2020 by the Trump administration. Like so much that the administration did, they were tremendously controversial. Free speech and due process advocates applauded the new rules. Victims' rights groups insisted the rules undermined the chance for sexual assault victims to get true justice.

Ultimately, the debate led to the creation of a whole new category of sexual misconduct: so-called “non-Title IX sexual misconduct.” Basically, colleges and universities across the country adopted their own sexual misconduct policies to use in cases where Title IX no longer applies.

By definition, non-Title IX investigations aren't subject to any government guidelines, which means every school is free to develop its own individual method for dealing with such cases. As with the rest of the country, SUNY schools have implemented a variety of approaches to investigating and prosecuting non-Title IX sexual misconduct. These approaches generally fall into one of three categories, though:

  • Universal Title IX procedures: A handful of SUNY schools treat every sexual misconduct case the same. That is, whether the case fits the strict Title IX definition of sexual misconduct or not, investigations and hearings are subject to the same rules.
  • Modified Title IX procedures: Other SUNY schools utilize a modified version of Title IX rules. For example, the school may conduct an investigation, just as in a Title IX case, but not provide for a hearing. Instead, the investigator is tasked with deciding the respondent's responsibility and assigning any sanctions.
  • No Title IX procedures: Some schools use their own procedures for dealing with sexual misconduct, procedures that have no real relationship to Title IX at all. For instance, at SUNY, Erie, the Dean of Students is responsible for deciding all disciplinary cases, including sexual misconduct cases that don't fit under Title IX. The Dean may determine that a particular case warrants a hearing, but that is never guaranteed. The Dean can simply decide the case after talking briefly with both sides.

Sexual misconduct cases, whether Title IX or non-Title IX, are among the most serious and complex cases anyone can face at a college or university. In addition, sanctions in these cases can be particularly severe. Typically, suspension is the minimum penalty a school will assign. Far more often, a school will expel students it finds responsible. As a result, if you should find yourself accused, it is vital that you retain a lawyer who is knowledgeable and experienced when it comes to Title IX law.

You've Been Accused, Now What?

If you've come to this page not just to gather information about how schools treat misconduct but because you yourself have been accused, you don't just need background information on SUNY or even a list of specific kinds of violations. You need practical advice on what to do next.

What is at Stake?

It's vital that you recognize that everything is at stake when you're facing a misconduct charge. It is impossible to over-emphasize: schools today treat policy violations seriously. That demands that you treat them just as seriously. In particular, keep in mind:

  • Sanction inflation: Colleges and universities grow less flexible each year. As a result, there is no small offense anymore, at least when it comes to sanctions. Few if any violations are dealt with through warnings. Instead, even the smallest infractions typically involve penalties like lowered grades, removal from campus housing, even probation.
  • There are no small infractions: Even if you do receive nothing worse than a warning, you need to know that your violation can become part of your record. That means it could have an impact on financial aid, graduate school applications, even your job search. Too often, students believe they are better off accepting a sanction—even if they are innocent—if the penalty is light. Rather than going to the trouble of protesting, they think it's easier to just move on. That's almost never true.
  • A sanction can ruin more than your college career: Your school can't send you to jail. It can, however, expel you. If you are expelled from a SUNY school, you're ineligible to apply to any other school in the system. In addition, most schools include a transcript notation about the nature of your offense, and that could prevent you from enrolling anywhere, even at non-SUNY schools. That could, effectively, end your academic career entirely. Given the statistics about how much better college-educated employees do over their lifetime than non-college-educated employees, that's a serious sentence.

Given these facts, you can't afford to ignore any kind of misconduct allegation. Your future demands that you take it seriously.

What Should You Do?

Like so much of what we've discussed on this page, how you react to a misconduct allegation will depend, in many respects, on the particular allegation. Being accused of copying answers off a classmate's exam isn't the same as being accused of date rape.

Even so, there are some general things you should keep in mind no matter what you might be charged with.

  • Take every allegation seriously. Don't make any assumptions. Don't, for example, assume you will get off lightly, with a slap on the wrist. Don't assume the school has your best interests at heart and will do what it can to help you. You may not be given the due process rights you deserve, and you may wind up with a sanction out of proportion to the nature of your offense.
  • Don't over-react: This advice may seem to contradict the notion of taking every accusation seriously, but you must also find a way to remain calm whatever the situation. If you respond to an accusation with anger or, worse, by taking some unwise action, you could easily find yourself in much more serious trouble. Breathe. Take care of your physical and emotional health. Find people and resources that can help you through this crisis.
  • Keep good records: Justice almost always comes down to good record-keeping. You cannot prove your writing is your own if you don't hang on to examples of it. A text message can be an alibi. A video recording can establish a sexual partner consented. If you've been accused, collect all the evidence you can. In addition, though, make sure you document every meeting you have with every school official.
  • Limit who you talk to: Don't talk to anyone without first contacting an attorney who can advise you of what to say. When possible, bring an attorney with you to any meetings about your misconduct. Finally, limit who you tell about your case. You may want to choose a friend or two to confide in, but the more people who know what's happening, the more likely your case can get out of control.

Contact Attorney Joseph D. Lento for Help

Campus justice is never a simple matter. Academic bureaucracy is like no other bureaucracy in the world.

More importantly, though, colleges and universities were just never intended to make weighty decisions about whether or not someone committed arson, whether or not someone committed date rape. They aren't equipped for it. These aren't judicial institutions run by highly educated lawyers and judges with years of experience interpreting the law. Your physics professor may be a genius on a level with Einstein, but that doesn't mean she's competent to decide your fate when you're accused of vandalism.

Schools can and do make mistakes. You need someone in your corner who can make sure they don't, someone who knows the law, someone who knows how colleges and universities operate.

You need attorney Joseph D. Lento. Joseph D. Lento built his practice on university disciplinary cases. He's represented hundreds of students in New York and nationwide from all kinds of misconduct charges, from simple accusations of plagiarism to complex Title IX allegations. Whatever you may be facing, Joseph D. Lento has dealt with it before.

Joseph D. Lento is on your side. He recognizes that colleges and universities don't always treat their students fairly. He knows they may try to deny you your fundamental rights to justice. He's determined to fight back on your behalf, to make sure you get the case resolution you deserve.

If you or your child has been accused of any type of misconduct, don't wait. Contact attorney Joseph D. Lento and his team at the Lento Law Firm at 888-555-3686 or by using our automated online form.

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact the Lento Law Firm today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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