Uphold the ideal

The Morris bill would undermine the University’s values of student self-governance and the community of trust

The Virginia House Committee on Education is currently considering a bill that would give students at public universities the right to have an attorney represent them at disciplinary hearings that could result in expulsion or long suspensions, and the right to appeal the decisions of such hearings in the circuit courts. For the University, this would mean that UJC would have to allow students to have a legal representative at all trials, since every UJC offense could potentially result in expulsion.

A major argument in favor of the bill is that because an expulsion or a long suspension from college can have such a serious impact on a student’s future, the student should have professional legal protection. However, the provisions of this bill would not apply to cases regarding academic dishonesty — the charge of a good portion of Honor trials at the University. The stakes at an Honor trial are just as severe, if not more than a UJC trial — the only punishment for an Honor offense if convicted is expulsion, while a conviction in a UJC court does not necessarily result in expulsion.

If the severity of a potential conviction are the primary concern, to apply this legislation to only certain types of trials and not others that carry the same punishment makes no sense. The bill does not apply to cases of academic dishonesty, so that Universities will retain their autonomy in matters that are “truly educational in nature,” according to an email to The Cavalier Daily from Joe Cohn, Legislative and Policy Director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and supporter of the bill. However, this provision makes the assumption that a university’s function is purely academic.

Yes, education is the primary purpose of a university. But Thomas Jefferson believed that cooperation and community were instrumental in giving students a truly valuable education. Such visions were an integral part of the physical and ideological construction of this institution. Students help each other learn in and outside the classrooms and support each other in their academic and extracurricular endeavors. A university is not only concerned with a student’s academic prowess, but with her character.

The University has entrusted the Honor Committee and the University Judiciary Committee with the task of enforcing the Honor Code and other codes of conduct in a way that builds the strength of the community of trust. Student self-governance is an essential part of a University education, and a fundamental pillar of the University’s culture. Students have the power to decide who they want and who they do not want to be members of their community. To give a circuit court the power to reverse a decision to expel a student is to force the University to take back a student who has been determined by his peers to be unwelcome in their community.

A system for appealing the decision of a UJC trial already exists within the University community. And students brought up on charges with UJC already have the right to student representatives during their trials — an analogous feature to legal counsel in a criminal court. To attempt to impose the rules of the larger legal system upon a university’s own system of justice is to misunderstand or to ignore the unique features and circumstances of an institution of higher learning. We are all accountable to each other. That includes in making decisions that significantly impact each other’s lives. We are capable of continuing to make those decisions, and we must in order to hold up the ideals that the University stands for.

Published January 29, 2014 in Opinion

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