Tuesday, June 9, 2009

UW Regents decide to balance student rights, university interests

One of the issues we’ve been tracking is the proposal that was before the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents regarding the student discipline code. While student misbehavior and pranks have been the subject of pop culture from Horse Feathers to Animal House, complaints from neighbors near UW campuses finally nudged Regents into reconsidering how students are punished on campus for their off-campus municipal and criminal violations.

But while we collectively hold UW students accountable for their behavior, the discipline system should embrace the same constitutional standards of due process and equal protection as any other part of the criminal justice system. Objections to the proposed changes arose from students and student rights advocates (like the United Council of UW Students and the ACLU of Wisconsin) questioned the removal of the right to hearings, appeals or legal council.

Students lobbied the Board of Regents at listening sessions and voiced their concerns. This article in the UW River Falls Voice quoted a student who said the proposed changes “butcher” student rights.

The ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation legal department sent a letter to the Board outlining our concerns. We supported changes to the proposal that would regulate, not eliminate, the option for accused students to have lawyers present at hearings. This would put the decision in the hands of a hearing examiner to keep a lawyer from cross-examining a victim of sexual assault. We also asked for a hearing examiner (rather than an investigating officer) to decide on a clear and demonstrated nexus between the off-campus conduct and a significant disruption of campus life and the interest of the University.

Ultimately the Board changed the rules in a way that balanced the interest of the university system and students’ rights. The decision is still not without some controversy from opponents, but the compromise was reached due to both the fair deliberation of the Regents and the persistence of students’ rights advocates. Read more about how the education committee of the Board of Regents made more balanced changes.