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SJP’s hold over UCourt thwarts student governance

By Brian Baran and Zelia Rosenzweig     4/21/15 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.

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