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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 int