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The Honor Code and fairness at stake

By Anonymous     2/2/16 9:27pm

What is justice?

This simple question has given the western world fits since at least Plato’s “Republic.” With regards to societal punishment, I would answer the question with the words ‘fairness,’ ‘due process’ and ‘a trial by jury.’ 

These are not simply words — our country was built on these words, and they have a specific meaning. To ensure justice, we passed a Bill of Rights that determined that in criminal cases all should be provided with the rights to due process, a right to a speedy trial, a right to a trial by an impartial jury, a right to have knowledge of the accusation and a right to cross-examine all witnesses. Rice University is not bounded by these specific laws. But why should that matter? Should we be just only if required to by law? If Rice wishes to hand out punishments for violations of the Honor Code or the Code of Student Conduct, punishments which can and do have real and dire consequences, she should strive to do so in accordance with what is right.  With respect to justice, the Bill of Rights should not only be read as a list of laws that apply to the government. These rights exist because they are one way, a time-tested way, to protect against injustice. 

Unfortunately, I have learned this lesson the hard way. The week after the spring semester concluded, I was accused of an Honor Code violation that had occurred in the fall semester. I was not notified that the accusation even existed until May 12. I was not notified of the assignments that the accusation pertained to until Aug. 26, and I was not notified of the specific accusations until Sept. 11 at my investigative meeting. I experienced a summer of hell as I spent hours each day preparing for two accusations — accusations in which I didn’t even know the assignments in question, much less the charge itself. 

Now I ask, is that fair?

Once I had my proverbial day in court (which started 35 minutes late due to two Honor Council member’s tardiness) I was declared “Not in Violation” on Oct. 27, almost a full year after the incident in question.

To be sure, I am not writing to criticize the members of the Honor Council or the Ombuds. To the contrary, I am thankful for their service. No, I write so that Rice can make all of its procedures in accordance with the principles of fairness and due process all of the time.

To start the conversation, I propose the following:

To correct the severe backlog of Honor Council cases and ensure that every case is resolved in a timely manner, I propose that Rice (1) implement a statute of limitations between 2 and 6 months, (2) make the honor Council larger and (3) encourage professors to have a clear policy with regards to cooperation, to meet with their TAs before writing a letter of accusation and to accuse students as soon as possible.

That the student be told the accusation against him the first time he is notified, and that the student be allowed to read all evidence pertaining to his case immediately.

To allow for the student’s testimony to be understood, I propose that the student be allowed to request honor council members with knowledge of the subject matter to serve on the committee.

For general fairness, I propose that if the university employs an anonymous “expert witness,” then the student also be allowed to provide an expert with an electronic copy of the evidence.

To protect against arbitrary decisions and to increase transparency, I propose that the Honor Council create categories that associate a range of punishments for common types of violations. 

To provide Honor Code cases with the proper dignity, I propose that the Honor Council have a dress code that calls for semi-professional attire in all proceedings.

That the administration and the student body carefully examine the current procedures and safeguards with respect to student conduct cases, for both Honor Council and Student Judicial Programs. We must ensure that the accused have knowledge of the accusation and are able to cross-examine witnesses and to present a defense at a hearing. In particular, Rice should reconsider its use of the “single-investigator model,” as it is unfair to give one person the power of judge, jury and executioner. All accused students, no matter the severity of the offense, deserve a fair and just procedure to determine innocence or guilt.

Solon the Lawgiver once said, “Wrongdoing can only be avoided if those who are not wronged feel the same indignation at it as those who are (wronged).”

Now is the time for action. Not just to be fair to accused students, not just to protect the rights of the falsely accused and not just to be a model for higher education.

To act for justice needs no other reason.

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