An unfair trial

Professors believe Jason Smith’s actions are in no way deserving of expulsion

We are writing as faculty members in  the  Department of English to protest the recent honor conviction of one of our majors, Jason Smith. Smith was convicted of lying on March 29, and is now in the process of appealing. In addition to the two of us whose signatures appear below, twenty-four other colleagues in English have expressed their agreement with what follows. Many of us have been teaching at the University for two decades or more. We speak not only from vast and varied pedagogical experience, but also from longstanding familiarity with and dedication to the University, its honor system, its commitment to academic fairness, and its standards of academic rigor. It is our view that to deny Smith’s appeal — indeed, to have convicted him in the first place — is ludicrous in pedagogical terms and unfair by any moral measure.

We fully concur with Smith and a great many others on Grounds in questioning the fairness of his trial. Above all, it strikes us as virtually impossible for the initial trial and subsequent appeal to proceed in a wholly unbiased manner given that the reporter and primary witness against him is herself a member of the Honor Committee. As a prominent member of the Committee, Mary Siegel’s testimony and interpretation of honor by-laws would necessarily have carried undue weight with unschooled jurors. The appeals process seems to us even more obviously tainted, due to its handling by Committee members who work side by side with the person most responsible for bringing charges against Smith.

We also question, from a procedural point of view, the jurors’ ability to determine, without reference to precedent or any other consistent guideline, the “triviality” or “non-triviality” of Smith’s actions (even assuming them to have been in violation of the honor code). Moreover, speaking from a pedagogical point of view, we are unanimous in characterizing the alleged actions as trivial in the extreme. We say this having received, in our time, thousands of papers, many of them late, some extremely so. Needless to say, we have also heard thousands of excuses, ranging from the flimsy to the legitimate. We routinely deal, every day of our teaching lives, with student absences, some excused and a great many unexcused. Almost every semester we have students at least as imperfect as Smith — often for reasons beyond their control. And whether or not the student is at fault, rarely do such matters warrant more than a warning and the loss of a few grade points. Never would we consider bringing such students up on honor charges. If we did, we can assure you it would make a significant dent in the student population. We are, frankly, appalled that undergraduate instructors have been permitted to behave in a way that appears to us a form of pedagogical malpractice. In addition to the gross misjudgment of filing honor charges in this instance, we are pained to hear that Smith was required to write a two-page paper on why he should come to class and why he failed to do so. This kind of punitive busywork is an insult to the high academic standards of the University.

Our final argument in favor of dismissing the charges against Smith has to do with larger concerns of fairness — fairness in the eyes of other students and faculty, and of those outside as well as within the University and its particular honor system. In a state or federal court of law, sentencing always involves consideration of a person’s character, record, and other relevant circumstances. In this case, the accused has a solid academic record, and a hitherto flawless disciplinary one. Jason also happens to be the first in his family to attend college, transferring here from a community college. Without question, he has worked with admirable diligence and persistence to get where he is today — a month from being granted a University degree. As we say, we do not believe that Smith has received a fair trial; but even were he guilty as charged, surely the public ordeal of being brought up on honor charges, in addition to being denied credit for the course in question, would be more than adequate punishment. To expel Smith and deny him a University degree on top of all this seems to us a grotesque miscarriage of justice. In our opinion, it not only harms Smith but also harms the honor system, making it less able, in the future, to address genuinely non-trivial cases with credibility.

Susan Fraiman is a professor in the English department and Arthur Kirsch is the Alice Griffin Professor of English, Emeritus.

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