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SJP’s hold over UCourt thwarts student governance

(04/21/15 7:00pm)

UCourt was not what we thought it would be. Nor was it what Rice pretends it is.When we applied to be new student representatives, we wrote that University Court allows students to “play a major role in shaping Rice into what we want it to be,” “maintain the integrity of the university” and “promote responsible decisions” by students. Maybe our wording was a little off, but even as new students, we got the idea: The point of UCourt should be to give students a voice in Rice’s judicial process. But as UCourt has matured, it has begun to collide with the rock wall of reality; Rice restricts us to operating in such a narrow space that our voice can hardly be heard.We have both been on UCourt for the last four years; between the two of us, we’ve served in every position, from new student representative to chair. From this vantage point, we want to communicate both UCourt’s potential and the serious pitfalls of the current UCourt-SJP power dynamic.For a little background, UCourt adjudicates cases under the Code of Student Conduct (analogously to Honor Council, which administers the Honor Code) and operates under Student Judicial Programs. UCourt was essentially re-established in the fall of our freshman year (2011) and has since come a long way.UCourt is an impressive organization in its mission. It provides students the chance to have their cases heard by peers who understand both what the Rice community means and the integrity it relies on. In our time here, UCourt has heard cases with consequences as serious as suspension and had long, serious, straining conversations about the conduct we should expect from Rice students in each case that has come before us.But UCourt’s ability to be a prosocial organization is restrained by its institutional limits. UCourt is dependent on SJP for case referral and its very existence, so while it would like to, it can rarely operate as a true voice for the student body, whether by advocating on broad issues or by reviewing specific cases.“You can always appeal to UCourt” is the message students are supposed to hear when they meet with SJP. But that’s not true. In reality, you have the right to bring your case to UCourt — unless SJP doesn’t want you to.None of this comes from Yik Yak; we’ve seen it year after year. UCourt operates as a functional judicial panel but lacks jurisdiction over or knowledge of cases until SJP chooses to refer them or allow students to appeal. There are legitimate privacy reasons to limit the information available to a student panel, but SJP frequently interprets these so broadly it seems the real intent is less to protect privacy than to prevent us from weighing in on cases and campuswide issues where it worries our answer may not be one it wants to hear.Which brings us back to the central problem: UCourt is stuck sitting at the little kids’ table. For example, in the 3.5 years prior to the semi-announced Code of Student Conduct overhaul this winter, SJP made unannounced changes to the Code at least 10 times. UCourt was not consulted on changes where a student perspective would have been relevant, but that pales next to SJP’s failure to even tell us the document we adjudicate under had changed.That experience represents the larger issue with the SJP-UCourt relationship. SJP treats UCourt as a student relations operation and a pawn. It often seems that SJP uses us to ease its workload by referring cases only when it feels comfortable with what our perspective might be — and, in doing so, it can pretend students have genuine input. That’s not to say UCourt is always expected to agree with SJP (it empirically doesn’t), but that SJP only gives us the chance to disagree on select cases.Even when cases are referred to UCourt, its influence is limited. Rather than having free rein to consider situations, their social meaning and appropriate responses from a student perspective, UCourt is often confined to a framework dictated by SJP and SJP’s own view of the charges and sanctions that fit the facts and students involved.For students found in violation, UCourt must determine an appropriate sanction, but SJP unilaterally sets the baseline for what is “appropriate.” Base fines, the starting point from which the Court can move up or down based on the specific case, are set by SJP and often change (read: increase) suddenly. Even if the changes are not arbitrary, they seem like it. We’re lucky to be told there was a change, much less to get an explanation.But this is much bigger than a question of the exact amount of the fines. We have long believed that fines are rarely appropriate except to repay actual damages. Despite a lack of evidence that fines educate or deter, Rice fines students left and right. (Fines also present a social justice issue; the same dollar amount has a disparate burden.) We firmly believe SJP and UCourt should aim to educate and rehabilitate. It is harder to design effective educational sanctions tailored to each case, but it’s better to work toward doing so than to continue fining students out of ease and inertia.This issue is also an example of when UCourt officers asked to discuss a major topic with SJP and were promptly shut down.Finally, UCourt’s decisions are only recommendations until SJP accepts them. While decisions are rarely overturned outright (as opposed to through the appeal process, an integral part of any judicial system), the possibility always looms, inevitably constraining the views we can provide.All of this puts UCourt at the mercy of fickle university politics, which is the last place a judicial panel should be. UCourt cannot currently serve as a check on SJP’s power; it’s been made clear throughout our time here that we are not in a position to hold SJP accountable.This is a classic case of a lopsided power dynamic, and it’s a shame that it’s between two organizations that could do a lot of good for the Rice community by working together.To be clear, we are not bringing into question our previous case decisions; we believe our perspective has been beneficial in the cases we’ve been allowed to hear. Our goal in writing this is instead to improve the overall system in which UCourt operates.Like most graduating seniors, we didn’t want to take all our institutional knowledge with us, but we could’ve never written this piece while we were in office. Now, we worry that we waited too long to say anything, and that if the student body doesn’t continue to advocate and enthusiastically call for change, the status quo will prevail.So it is on you, students and UCourtiers alike, to be mindful of the difference between what UCourt is, and what it could be.

Students must stand up to misguided drop limit proposal

(04/24/14 2:36pm)

The time has come once again for students to stand up to the University Committee on the Undergraduate Curriculum and its latest attempt to change the way dropping classes works at Rice University (“Proposed legislation limits number of class drops to four,” April 16). And it is also time to acknowledge what is really happening here. In focusing our attention on students’ selection of courses, the CUC is — whether intentionally or not — distracting our community from the more important issue: the number of courses and sections offered, which is closely tied to the number of faculty members Rice is willing to hire.The CUC’s proposal to limit to four the number of courses students can drop between the week two add deadline and the week seven drop deadline without an indication of a withdrawal on their transcripts is not a solution. It is overly broad with regard to the purported problem and utterly useless as a response to the actual problem.It is disconcerting that each time the CUC raises this issue, the claimed problem and justifications change, but effectively moving the drop deadline to week two is somehow still the solution. This should lead us to suspect that the CUC is just looking for a justification that resonates with the community.Why would the CUC want to do this? Perhaps it is the usual reason: Rice should follow its peer institutions in order to maintain its reputation.Prior to his campaign for Student Association president, in which he promised to stand up to the administration, Ravi Sheth served as  external vice president and worked with the CUC and the Office of Institutional Effectiveness to conduct the survey the CUC is using to justify its proposal. In an emailed response to my concerns about biased questions, Sheth defended the survey and claimed this is about more than just registration problems.“The more egregious problem, however, is the fact that you can drop a class with no impact on the transcript,” Sheth said. “In comparison with our peer institutions, this is incredibly lax, to the point that other institutions demean the quality and meaningful nature of Rice transcripts.”However, the Thresher quoted CUC Chair Susan McIntosh as saying some peer institutions’ drop deadlines are near week two, but others range from weeks five to nine.Rice is not in poor company. Among those with  similar drop deadlines are Cornell, Harvard and Princeton. If this proposal is meant to improve Rice’s reputation, it is a solution in search of a problem.This leaves us with two other purported problems the CUC claims its proposal will solve.First, the Thresher quoted McIntosh as saying the current system encourages students to take on overly rigorous and stressful course loads, reducing their academic performance.This cannot be inferred from 45 percent of respondents reporting that they register for more courses than they intend to complete, many of whom may have meant that they drop the extra courses during the shopping period. This is not a problem; it is the point of the shopping period. Furthermore, the CUC has not reported the overlap between those 45 percent of respondents and the 44 percent who said they dropped courses because they had too large of an academic load.However, we should grant that even after the add deadline, some students keep more courses than they plan to finish, in part because it is often still unclear at week two what a course will be like.This is a problem to the extent that it prevents other students from taking those courses. But the resulting stress and academic consequences do not warrant the CUC’s pseudo-parental response. Rice students are adults, and those who take more courses than they can handle are responsible for the consequences of their decisions. The entire student body should not be penalized for some students’ irresponsibility.This brings us to the problem as presented in the survey’s most spectacularly biased question.That question reads, “In order to enable more students to enroll in high-demand classes, a change is needed to the add/drop policy. Recognizing this, what should be the disincentive(s) to dropping after the first two weeks of classes? Select all that apply.”There was no option to say that no change was needed.According to the Thresher, 44 percent of respondents said they could not get into courses they wanted. The CUC seems to think this is caused by 45 percent of students registering for more courses than they plan to take. Rice faculty members should know better than to confuse correlation with causation.Furthermore, it is unclear what is really meant by students not getting into courses they want. The data do not distinguish between freshmen unable to get into popular electives filled by seniors (that’s life), students unable to get into required courses because not enough sections are offered (a problem not solved by the CUC’s proposal), and students unable to get into courses because they are full and some of the students in them are registered for more courses than they intend to take.I suspect the third type of experience is shared by far fewer than 44 percent of students. It is nevertheless a problem, but one that warrants a narrowly tailored solution.For example, Rice could keep the drop deadline at week seven but impose a fine for students who, after week two, drop courses that were full at the add deadline, with exceptions for extenuating circumstances and where the fine would present an unreasonable financial burden.Anything beyond a narrowly tailored solution will merely harm students for no additional benefit. If the CUC wants to fix the problem of students not getting into classes they need or want, it should recommend a real solution: Rice needs to account for its larger student body by offering more sections of popular and required courses and, where necessary, hiring more faculty.Students should be offended that the CUC is essentially blaming them for registration woes stemming from inadequate availability of courses. We must stand up against the accusation that the problem is that we are registering for too many courses — by paying full-time tuition, we purchase the right to take anywhere from 12 to 20 credits each semester. We are not breaking the system by doing so. Our current registration problems will not be solved until Rice puts its money where its mouth is by offering enough courses and sections and hiring enough faculty to meet the needs of its expanded student body.The Student Association exists to serve and advocate for the interests of students. We, the students, therefore need to encourage our representatives in the Student Senate to stand up to the CUC. The Senate should pass a resolution opposing the CUC’s misguided proposal and advocating for a real solution instead. We stalled this once; let’s now stop it for good.Brian Baran is a Duncan College Junior and a UCourt Chair

EMS amnesty policy clarification a positive step for owl community

(10/18/12 7:00pm)

Clear and consistent standards, expectations and communication are necessary for a strong student-led community at Rice University - especially as they pertain to student health and safety. In the interest of clarity, the university's emergency medical services amnesty policy, as detailed in Article B, Section 4 of the Rice Alcohol Policy, was recently amended to better explain the violations to which amnesty applies, what amnesty entails, the requirements for receiving amnesty and behaviors that will result in the loss of amnesty.