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Princeton University Students Express Concerns Regarding University's Current Disciplinary System

Posted by Joseph D. Lento | Jun 27, 2016 | 0 Comments

Four Princeton University students recently expressed their concerns regarding the current state of Princeton University's disciplinary system.  These students were not among those who faced disciplinary charges, but rather, served in various roles on the University's Honor Committee, an all-student body that exclusively presides over disciplinary infractions related to in-class examinations - Justin Ziegler (Class of 2016 - Senior Class President & Honor Committee Member), Nicholas Horvarth (Class of 2017 - Former Clerk of the Honor Committee), Ali Akram Hayat (Class of 2016 - Chair of the Peer Representatives), and Joseph Obiajulu (Class of 2017 - Former Member of the Honor Committee). 

(The four students, by serving on the Honor Committee, were also exposed to concerns regarding the University's Committee on Discipline.  Both the Honor Committee and the The Committee on Discipline are central to the University's disciplinary system - Wheres the Honor Committee presides over specific forms of academic misconduct, The Committee on Discipline is a body comprised of students and faculty members that presides over all other disciplinary infractions, including non-academic violations, as outlined in the University's “Rights, Rules, Responsibilities.")

The four Honor Committee students understand that academic integrity, a "bedrock value" at Princeton University, should be held to a very high standard, and that the University values learning above all else.  Per the four students' experiences with the University disciplinary process, because "learning" is a guiding principle at the University, the current disciplinary system does not uphold the values of the institution as best it could.  If specific deficiencies can be addressed, the University can better fulfill its institutional aim and make the University a better place for all students, including those who run may afoul of disciplinary rules and regulations, by instituting a more compassionate system of student discipline.

Although the four Honor Committee students believe that the current disciplinary system is not broken per se, several areas need to be addressed.  The following six main areas require "reform" and "redefinition" to resolve concerns regarding the University's disciplinary system: 1) Mental Health; 2) Precedent; 3) Intent; 4) Self-Incrimination; 5) Severity; and 6) Type of Punishments.

Mental Health

The current University disciplinary system has no policy as to how mental health issues should be factored into deciding a student's case.  For this reason, the four Honor Committee students found it very difficult to evaluate student's case when the issue of mental health had been raised.  The four student members also found it unfair to students facing any kind of disciplinary committee, whether academic or non-academic in nature, to not account for mental health issues in deciding cases; because accounting for reasons behind a student's conduct and transgressions should be considered in reducing culpability when applicable. 

The four students believe that the University needs to: 1) expressly allow a student's mental health issues to be considered in both academic misconduct and non-academic disciplinary cases; and 2) expressly specify how such issues may have motivated a disciplinary violation so that academic and non-academic infractions can be viewed with potential mitigating factors in mind.

Precedent

A Princeton University disciplinary committee can review precedent when deliberating and deciding on a student's case; precedent is information from relevant past cases.  During their tenure on the Honor Committee, the four student members found that reference to and application of precedent was inconsistent; this was especially true regarding mental health issues.  They believe this inconsistency was because the Honor Committee has no formalized manner to review prior decisions made by the Honor Committee on prior cases.  Whereas the Honor Committee has no formal process, the Committee on Discipline does have a standardized manner to review precedent. 

Nonetheless, the four student members regard the Committee on Discipline's review process as deficient because student and faculty members on the Committee on Discipline are not able review precedent outside of student cases they personally adjudicated.  In addition, in deciding cases, the Committee on Discipline is provided with precedent on certain student cases only, and the precedent is provided by Princeton University administration itself.  University administration can, in theory, essentially "cherry-pick" prior cases that were adjudicated in a certain manner to influence the Committee on Discipline's decision at hand.  (The hope would obviously be that no college or university would resort to such tactics regarding a student's disciplinary case, but colleges and universities do have a stake in how a student's case is adjudicated.  The four Honor Committee students themselves recognized the potential conflict of interest in the University's present arrangement; they believe all involved in the process, accused students and members of disciplinary committees alike, would benefit if summaries of past student disciplinary cases were more accessible. 

Intent

"Intent can never be factored in [disciplinary committee] decisions" - This is what members of the Honor Committee and the Committee on Discipline are instructed in their training before serving on disciplinary committees.  This stands in contrast to almost all judicial and quasi-judicial systems outside of the confines of Princeton University's student disciplinary system.  In addition, the four student members came to the realization through their service that despite the University's instructions otherwise, intent has been incorporated into past disciplinary committee decisions. 

The four student members note that not considering a student's intent behind their actions is inconsistent with the University's Honor Constitution which clearly states that a violation of the Honor Code is an attempt to gain an unfair advantage.  If an accused student did not attempt to gain an unfair advantage, but for example, did so by mistake or misunderstanding, should such a student's case be decided in the same manner as a student who actively engaged in gaining an unfair advantage?  For equitable reasons alone, intent must be considered so that such a scenario results in an equitable outcome.  A student's intent, or lack thereof, speaks directly to their culpability, and the extent of a student's culpability should affect the potential finding of responsibility and potential sanction imposed. 

Self-Incrimination

The right to be informed of one's status in an investigation of any kind is characteristic almost every other judicial system in the world.  Despite this fact, the Committee on Discipline does not afford an accused student this basic right.  A student subject to the Committee on Discipline's authority is not guaranteed the right to be informed whether they are a witness, or whether they are the subject of the Committee's investigation.  In contrast, the Honor Committee has recently instituted a protocol in which an investigator immediately informs the accused student that they are under investigation to protect the accused student from self-incrimination during the disciplinary investigation.  Although this is a step in the right direction for Princeton University's student disciplinary system, in order to ensure an accused student's right to not self-incriminate is protected, the Committee on Discipline should mandate this basic right as the Honor Committee has done.

Severity of Punishments

The four Honor Committee students came to the realization that when an accused student is found responsible for a disciplinary violation, the current sanctioning provisions are inflexible.  For this reason, the severity and gradation of student punishment needs to be reformed.  As it stands, when an accused student is found responsible for an academic violation, a standard punishment is imposed; factors such as extenuating circumstances, the seriousness of the offense (or arguable lack thereof), and intent are not considered.  In addition, the standard punishment available to the Honor Committee is severe; an accused student found responsible for a first-offense violation will receive a two-semester suspension from the University; a second-offense will result in expulsion from the University.  Although the Committee on Discipline has discretion in imposing less severe sanctions, the four Honor Committee students, in their experience serving the University, came to the realization that mitigating factors were not sufficiently considered by the Committee on Discipline in determining punishment. 

Such mitigating factors should arguably lessen the punishment imposed upon an accused student found responsible, but because sufficient consideration in this regard does not take place, standard sanctions imposed by the Committee on Discipline are regularly imposed for minor offenses.  The four student members point to the successful introduction of a lesser baseline sanction for writing overtime during a University examination in 2014 as confirmation that finer gradations of punishments have value, and should be available to disciplinary committees rather than the inflexible options available under the current disciplinary system.  Despite one-semester punishments not currently an option due to the current University curriculum, the four student members request that other finer gradations of punishment be considered, including one-semester suspensions and course failure; rather than two-semester suspensions and expulsion under the current system.

Type of Punishments

The four Honor Committee students find the current University disciplinary system to be guided by inconsistent principles at times.  Princeton University is not unique in that student punishments are intended to be both punitive and rehabilitative; this is true of many colleges and universities.  The four student members nonetheless believe that emphasis needs to be placed more on rehabilitation of the student offender rather than punishment for punishment's sake.  University punishments should be more "compassionate," and principles of restorative justice should be used when sanctions are imposed on students found responsible for disciplinary violations

The four student members gave the example of a mandatory crash course on academic integrity that could be used as a lesser punishment for students who unknowingly violated a rule or regulation.  A student offender's intent again becomes paramount in determining an appropriate resolution to a disciplinary case.  The four student members also brought attention to students who are required to withdraw from the University after an adverse finding and the dilemma they face as a result.  Although they commended the University for providing support to such students, this support needs to be increased to ensure students' success when they return to the University.

Although the demands at times may be higher because of its place among elite schools, students at Princeton University are similar in many respects to students at schools throughout the country.  College and university students often face tremendous pressure due to academic and future professional concerns.  Students also face social pressure on campus, and a student's family circumstances can also contribute to actions or behavior that would otherwise be out of character for a student who finds themselves accused of a disciplinary violation. 

Whether at Princeton University, or any college or university in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the stakes are always high when a student is accused of a disciplinary violation.  A student's academic and future professional career are at great risk whether the student faces an academic misconduct charge or a non-academic disciplinary violation.  Any effort by Princeton University to ensure a more comprehensive disciplinary process that accounts for all of the circumstances regarding a student's case will afford a more equitable result. 

As the four Honor Committee students note, "It's time for the University to reform its system of discipline and incorporate a more compassionate system focused on the rehabilitative nature of punishment. The current application of [Princeton University's disciplinary] rules too frequently results in harsh punishments for minor infractions...There are systematic ways of adding nuance to [the current] system that will make our discipline at [Princeton University] more just."

About the Author

Joseph D. Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Joseph D. Lento has more than a decade of experience passionately fighting for the futures of his clients. Mr. Lento represents students and others in disciplinary cases and other proceedings at universities and colleges across the United States while concurrently fighting in criminal courtrooms in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania counties, and New Jersey. Mr. Lento has helped countless students, professors, and others in academia at more than a thousand universities and colleges across the United States. He does not settle for the easiest outcome, and instead prioritizes his clients' needs and well-being. Joseph D. Lento is licensed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, and is admitted pro hac vice as needed nationwide.

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