In Fall 2012, Olivia Hansen, a former Rice student, wrote an op-ed claiming she was mistreated by members of the university administration when she attempted to file harassment complaints against an abusive partner, and was subsequently forced to withdraw from Rice. While the university claimed this withdrawal was for her emotional well-being, Hansen maintains that it was Rice’s attempt to silence an unhappy student to protect its reputation and quality-of-life rankings.
Following Hansen’s alleged mistreatment, the student body lost a great deal of trust in the administration’s ability to adjudicate judicial matters and maintain student well-being; some of this skepticism and mistrust persists more than two years later.
As a whole, the university has made tremendous strides to attempt to address student concerns and regain trust in well-being and judicial matters. In fact, Student Judicial Programs — one of the bodies Hansen alleges was involved in her mistreatment — underwent seemingly sweeping changes following Hansen’s allegations, including hiring a new director, Lisa Zollner.
While I applaud the administration for the strides they have made, I am troubled by a recent trend within SJP that has greatly undercut student confidence in the institution. On April 24, 2014, the Thresher published an article alleging rampant mistreatment of students by SJP staff. Since this article’s publication, numerous rumors have persisted as students — past and present — have come forward to testify to the same crass, disrespectful and threatening treatment at the hands of SJP.
Students who feel that they have been unfairly treated may file a complaint with Dean Hutchinson. However, SJP meetings are private, and students cannot record the exchange or bring a witness to the meeting, such as a Master or resident associate. This lack of documentation makes any student accusation of SJP an immediate he-said-she-said matter that is nearly impossible to prove.
However, if repeated student claims of abuse are truly fictitious, and the methods used by SJP staff are as benign as the administration claims, why not increase transparency to assuage student concerns? Dean Hutchinson is currently the only check on SJP, and given repeated and continued student complaints, this check is clearly not enough. Thus, the administration should address these concerns directly by allowing students to record or bring a silent witness to SJP meetings. Such actions will not interfere with official proceedings, but will help ensure that students are treated with basic respect and dignity.
SJP plays a tremendously important role on Rice’s campus — as it should. Ensuring that safety is maintained should be a top priority for the administration and student body alike. However, the recent decline of student trust in SJP has negatively impacted its ability to effectively execute its duties and has compromised the confidence it has regained since Hansen’s op-ed.
SJP’s job is difficult enough when students have confidence in the institution, but it becomes infinitely more complicated when this relationship becomes adversarial. While the outcomes of SJP proceedings are not always in line with student desires, the student body must at least feel that they can trust in the fairness and legitimacy of the process.