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Pre-trial grievance panel short-circuits honor system

NO ONE should be surprised that Honor Committee Chairman Hunter Ferguson cast the tie-breaking vote Sunday to keep pre-trial grievance panels. Bureaucrats always seek to preserve their own petty powers, and make no mistake about it, Ferguson is nothing more than a bureaucrat. After all, it was Ferguson who inaugurated the pre-trial grievance panel last spring by telling an accused student that he had thoroughly listened to Investigation Panel tapes that later were proven inaudible. Like in any exercise of the mandarin self-preservation instinct, it is the public that will pay the price for Ferguson's vote.

The pre-trial grievance panel is a way of short-circuiting the honor system. After formally being accused by an I-Panel comprised of three elected Committee members, a student may ask the Executive Committee for a grievance panel to review and reverse the I-Panel's decision for lack of fundamental fairness. The Executive Committee has the power to appoint itself as the grievance panel. This system presents a myriad of problems.

First, the Executive Committee should not sit in judgement on cases that it must administer. The Executive Committee, made up of the chairman and vice chairmen, is the administration of the Honor Committee. They are the functionaries of the system, the people who take care of the system's day-to-day operations.

No more, and no less. Included in these tasks are assigning counsel and advisors and generally following the progress of cases in the system. Though assisted by senior support officers, the final responsibility stops with the Executive Committee.

The pre-trial grievance panel asks the Executive Committee to sit in judgement on the "fairness" of a case against a particular student. They must form an opinion, which in reality includes the question of guilt or innocence. After denying a grievance and sending a case on to trial, the Executive Committee, which now has formulated an opinion about the case, must oversee its progress through the system. This is a straightforward conflict of interest.

The amorphous nature of the pre-trial grievance panel is equally troubling. The panel has no operating procedures or guidelines. There is no prescribed standard of review, nor must the Executive Committee explain its final decision to any of the parties involved. The student is not even assured an audience before the august Executive Committee. An accused student is merely provided with a standardless proceeding in which he is depending upon the Executive Committee to pronounce other Committee members, their friends and tubing partners, "unfair." Good luck.

Though hardly a convincing safeguard for the accused student, the pre-trial grievance panel is even more woefully inadequate to protect the community's interests and rights. The purpose of the honor system is not to adjudicate disputes between individuals. The Committee formally accuses and brings forth the evidence at trial. The accused student is pitted against the community, not against the person who initiated the case.

The most common remedy granted by the panel is dismissal of the case. This does not preserve the community's rights. If the investigation or the an I-Panel was run improperly, then the case should be reinvestigated or another an I-Panel should be convened. Dismissal, though an easy way out of an uncomfortable position or a possible lawsuit, does not ensure that justice will be done. Nor does it ensure that the Committee will deal with the reasons why "something went fundamentally wrong" in the first place. Dismissal merely ensures that the community's case will never be heard. The community should not suffer because the Committee cannot follow its own policies and procedures.

The pre-trial grievance panel is just one of a number of steps the Committee has taken to remove the honor system from the hands of the students at large. Recall last year's proposal to do away with all-student jury panels. In a paternalistic power grab, the Committee has sought to reduce the circle of people permitted to sit in judgement of accused students. Overall, the pre-trial grievance panel is harmful to the honor system because it adds yet another behind-closed-doors proceeding to a committee already shrouded in mystery. Sections of the University community do not trust the Honor Committee because it appears to be a group of faceless politicos sitting in Star Chamber judgement on the fourth floor of Newcomb Hall.

Too often the community hears stories of politicos and Lawnies and even Honor Committee members having cases against them dismissed by handpicked I-Panels. Giving the Executive Committee the power to drop cases through a standardless and arbitrary proceeding does nothing to allay the community's fears of discrimination and miscarriages of justice.

But don't Executive Committee members to give away power granted to them. Like the eunuchs of the Forbidden City, the bureaucrats of the Honor Committee relish their self-perceived role as protectors of the holy community of trust and the rewards it brings them. Power is intoxicating and quickly engenders a sense of entitlement on those who wield it. Unfortunately it is usually exercised at the public's expense.

(Sam Waxman's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily.)