Bad Board

Harvard’s disciplinary body is in need of major reform

From the Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights to Miranda v. Arizona, western legal systems have been making steady progress toward providing the accused with sufficient due process in the name of justice. While the guarantee of defendants’ rights has fortunately caught on in much of the world, the Administrative Board of Harvard College remains an unfortunate exception. Since its establishment in 1890, the Ad Board has operated under rules and restrictions that are fundamentally unfair to students.

When students are called before the Ad Board, the deck is clearly stacked against them. Students are not allowed to hear the testimony against them and cannot submit evidence on their own behalf. Their sole representatives are resident deans, who are plagued by severe conflicts of interest, as deans are often asked to function as both advocate and prosecutor in disciplinary inquiries. Students have no alternative choice of representation, as they are prohibited from hiring an attorney for an Ad Board hearing. It is already difficult enough for a defendant to get a fair shake from the Ad Board—a student should be able to go into a hearing with the best possible representation.

Compounding these issues are problems of intra-Board dynamic: Resident deans are simply not in a position to act as a defendant’s counselor. Outranked by the tenured faculty who comprise the Ad Board, deans are not only reluctant to challenge their senior colleagues but are rarely taken seriously by tenured faculty, especially in matters relating to academic transgressions.

Simply put, the Ad Board does not allow students to fully present their side of the story and prepare an adequate defense. This renders the Ad Board a mere kangaroo court, whose rulings are clear before it convenes.

Beyond the injustice of the trial itself, the Ad Board suffers additional shortcomings of membership and “sentencing.” Members of the Ad Board are often divorced from the proceedings, since many of them skip hearings related to student discipline. The Ad Board’s punishments are “one-size-fits-all”—too often, students are simply asked withdraw from the College for a year—and are rarely constructive for students. Though the Ad Board claims to be “primarily concerned for the educational and personal growth of undergraduates, both as individuals and as members of the Harvard community,” its rules and restrictions simply do not reflect that.

These systemic problems with the Ad Board have spawned interest for reform. Notably, the Undergraduate Council (UC) has prioritized this issue, but unfortunately, its discussion has been limited to the prospect of student representation on the Ad Board. This general focus tends to distract from the larger systemic problems with the Ad Board that have a more detrimental effect on student justice. One must suspend judgment to imagine that placing a few students on the Ad Board will cause any meaningful change in its rules.

Students who have gone before the Ad Board usually describe the process as intimidating and terrifying. Given that the rules barely allow students to act in their own defense, it is easy to understand why. The Ad Board is in dire need of complete structural reform from the ground up. Until this occurs, pray that you never get Ad Boarded—because if you do, you will probably be guilty before you even enter the room.