Thursday, December 1, 2011

Cornell nixes plan for secret resolution of sexual assault cases that would strip accused students of critical rights

Just when you thought college disciplinary proceedings couldn't get any less fair to men accused of sexual assault, Cornell University seriously considered a plan that would have done just that. Fortunately, the plan was scuttled yesterday, but the fact that this proposal got as far as it did, and that it had as much support as it did, underscores an undesirable politicization of sexual assault on campus. Read this one to the end -- the statement at the end by a member of the school's Women’s Resource Center Advisory Board is eye-opening.

By a six to three vote, Cornell's Codes and Judicial Committee nixed a plan that would have drastically changed the way sexual assault accusations against students are resolved. The proposed plan would have allowed an investigator to gather the facts relating to the accusation, decide whether the alleged assault occurred, and then recommend corrective actions to a University administrator. The entire process would be cloaked in secrecy.

The plan would have done away with a variety of protections for the accused that are modeled after the criminal justice system, including use of the University Hearing Board, composed of members of the Cornell community, including students, which hears arguments by the opposing sides and then makes a decision.  It also would have curtailed an accused student's right to utilize the services of an attorney -- under the plan, lawyers would not be permitted to cross-examine witnesses or advocate for their clients as they are now.

Predictably, several members of the Women’s Resource Center supported the proposal, saying that it addressed their concerns about the current system. Eva Drago ’12, a Women’s Resource Center board member, said: “The idea is to make it a much more private process that’s conducted primarily by the administration, by individuals who are trained on these matters.” Drago said she wants a process that prevents sexual assault victims from having to detail their experiences to fellow students — who currently sit on the University Hearing Board, which decides cases brought against students — and that limits the role of lawyers, who can currently cross-examine victims when the cases are presented.

The plan, in all its Star Chamber ramifications, would have bucked decades of tradition in American higher education by reverting to a system of secret "justice," a system where there is no accountability and where the potential for the arbitrary abuse of power is both real and pronounced.

Prof. Kevin Clermont, for one, didn't think the proposed plan offered accused students sufficient protections: “When you punish someone, certain rights need to be respected. The [existing] Campus Code was built to respect those rights,” he said. 

Prof. Risa Lieberwitz seemed to agree: “We should take seriously that there are severe potential consequences for the people being accused," she said. "The [existing] model that we have recognizes that.”

Fortunataely, prominent voices at Cornell made clear that they appreciate the need to maintain the delicate balance between two critical policy objectives: punishing rapists, and insuring that the innocent aren't punished with them.

But some voices on campus do not appear to appreciate the need for that crucial balance. Ashley Harrington ’13, a member of the Women’s Resource Center Advisory Board, at first seemed to offer a ray of hope that victims' advocates are mindful of the rights of the presumptively innocent who are accused of sexual assault.  Harrington said that the existing Code of Conduct was created after student activists in the 1960s demanded a greater role for students in disciplinary proceedings.  "It’s very important for student voices to be on that board,” she said, referring to the University Hearing Board.  "To say that one person should make that decision … is not OK with me.”

But then, Harrington made a statement so breathtakingly insensitive and unjust, it merely highlights the entire problem here. This is a quote from the news report: "Rather than preventing students from ever being involved in the process, the accusers in sexual assault cases should be allowed to choose whether students sit on the board that hears the cases, Harrington said."

Read it again. Accusers, not the accused, should decide whether to involve students.

For people like Ashley Harrington, it's critically important to the process to have students sit on disciplinary panels--unless the accuser doesn't want them to do so. 

People like Ashley Harrington are the problem.