Ad Board Editorial Based on Little Evidence and Information

To the editors:

Re: “Bad Board,” editorial, Oct. 22.

This editorial was filled with so many errors that I felt it necessary to write to you to correct the most egregious statements.

The editorial states, “students are not allowed to hear the testimony against them and cannot submit evidence on their own behalf.” This is wrong. Students have an opportunity to see and respond to all of the information that the Board receives and that might be considered as part of any case in which they are involved. In peer disputes, where one student brings a complaint against another, the testimony of each student involved in the case, or any witnesses to the case, is also presented to the student, who is then given the opportunity to respond. In peer dispute cases, where there is a fact finder and a subcommittee, the accused has the same access to the information as members of the Board. Indeed, all the witness testimony are presented to the student by his or her resident dean soon after it is given. The Board, on the other hand, does not get this information immediately or directly but only sees and hears about it from the subcommittee that investigated the case when the case later comes before that body. All written testimony and any written evidence is presented to the student in exactly the way it is presented to members of the Board. Your suggestion that the Board sees and hears a whole body of evidence to which the student charged is not privy is not true.

As to whether a student can submit evidence, whenever a case comes before the Board, students are asked for a statement regarding the incident. From that statement we often see that there is evidence available that would be helpful to the Board to understand what happened from the student’s point of view. Students are allowed and encouraged to submit evidence.

You state in your editorial that the resident deans suffer from severe conflicts of interests in being the “advocate” and “prosecutor” of the student. Resident deans serve neither purpose, and it is a misstatement to claim that they do. They are officers of the university who represent the College to the student and the student to the College. The Board attempts to understand what happened and to determine if a rule of the faculty was violated. They do not see this as an adversarial relationship, since every student who appears before the Board is a member of this community. You should also note that resident deans do not vote on cases that involve the students from their house or yard. They also do not vote in cases involving students with whom they have an advising relationship. Additionally, all members of the Board can abstain, and sometimes do, when they feel that their relationship and/or prior knowledge makes it impossible for them to render a vote without bias.

You mention in the editorial that students can have no alternative choice of representation other than their resident dean. Again, this is incorrect. Students can ask for a Board alternate if they so choose and the Dean readily appoints one, ordinarily from the pool of Board members who are not also resident deans. In addition to the representative to the Board, a student can also ask for a personal advisor, someone who is an officer of FAS (a professor, coach, tutor, etc.), to come to their appearance before the Board or its subcommittee with them.

You state that the Board is primarily senior faculty members (that is incorrect also, as normally only two to three faculty members serve on the Board at any one time) and that resident deans are rarely taken seriously by tenured faculty. This is completely false. The resident deans are very much taken seriously and consulted by faculty members in several situations. There is no “voting bloc” on the Board, and there has been no intimidation of any member of the Board.

You emphasize in this editorial that the Board does not allow students to fully present their side of a story or prepare an adequate defense. Not true. Again, students who are referred to the Board for action are given access to everything that the Board sees and are asked to prepare a written response that is circulated with the other material to Board members. In cases where the student might be subject to official disciplinary action, the student has the opportunity to appear before the Board, make statements, and answer any questions Board members might have. This gives the students a voice in the process and lets them participate and defend themselves in their actions.

Your claim that the rulings are clear before the Board convenes is also wrong. There is no opportunity for a ruling to be made before the meeting because members do not meet to discuss a case and do not discuss a case even in the meeting until the student has had a chance to appear and present his or her side of the story. To say that the decision is already made and that a requirement to withdraw is all but automatic is wrong. This can be seen in the statistics of Board decisions. In the last academic year there were a total of 81 disciplinary cases before the Board. Of those cases, 23, only 28 percent, ended in the student being required to withdraw. Given that most of what the Board deals with are actually serious offenses sent to us by the faculty, your implication that we automatically send students away is false.

You also say that members of the Board are “divorced by the proceedings, since many of them skip hearings related to student discipline.” This is insulting to members of the Board who faithfully attend all meetings despite the tremendous amount of time involved (the Board meets every week throughout the term, and the preparation for the members prior to the meeting is extensive). The members of the Board are dedicated members of this community who are committed to the work of the College. This point is one that is particularly disappointing to me as the one who keeps track of attendance since it is clearly based on no evidence and no information.

JAY ELLISON
Cambridge, Mass.
October 31, 2008

The writer is the Associate Dean of Harvard College, the Secretary of the Administrative Board, and a Lecturer on Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.