Reforming Ad Board Reform

Harvard students complain about a lot of things. But one of our grievances deserves to be addressed immediately: The Administrative Board (Ad Board), the organization that metes out punishment when students break the rules, is an opaque institution that operates according to highly unjust principles, and it should be reformed.

One criticism is that resident deans are simultaneously responsible for bringing the case to the Ad Board, investigating it, representing the student, and presenting the case against him or her. Are they friends or prosecutors? The only people present on the students’ behalf (the students are not) are faculty advocates enlisted by students, yet even they are not allowed to speak at the hearing.

On occasion, the Ad Board will rely on the secret testimony of other students when “serving” justice, yet the accused is never allowed to hear this testimony or see a transcript. In fact, transcripts aren’t even kept. This might be acceptable practice at Guantanamo Bay, but you won’t find it at Yale, Stanford, or MIT.

Additionally, the Ad Board has too few disciplinary options to recommend, so they rely heavily on having students take time off as a “cure all” for different offenses. It shouldn’t come as a surprise when the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime.

Finally, the Ad Board lacks student representation, a criticism that Ad Board Secretary and staff member of the review committee John L. Ellison responds to by citing student privacy concerns. The disciplinary bodies of our seven Ivy League peers, each of which includes students, see things differently.

I don’t doubt that the members of the Ad Board have our best interests at heart, but the institution hasn’t undergone any major reforms in the 100 or so years since it was created.

Some don’t see a problem with that. Ellison, who as the secretary might be suspected of having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, told The Crimson, “I’m not even sure that there will be recommendations for reform. I know that people feel like [the Ad Board] is broken...It’s not, but the information is not out there.”

Hopefully the other members of the committee—its Chairman Donald H. Pfister, Elaine Scarry, Stephen A. Mitchell—and staff member Heather Quay of the Office of General Counsel, are more open-minded, if a little skeptical. Otherwise, it is troubling to think they have been guided through the first few months of the review by Ellison, who evidently doesn’t believe it should be reviewed in the first place.

But the prognosis isn’t all bad, and there is reason to be optimistic that at least some of the members of the committee are committed to a thorough review and still open to the idea of reform.

Hopefully an indication of this commitment, although it may not have occurred until six meetings into the review, is that Undergraduate Council President Matthew L. Sundquist ’09, was finally appointed to the committee.

Yet, even with Sundquist on board, student opinion is still largely shut out. The student body president can hardly be expected to represent the vast diversity of student views on the subject. I can only hope that Pfister meant what he wrote in an e-mail, that “We will be meeting with other groups hoping to cover the range of students and experiences that are represented in the community.”

But I don’t want to overstress the point about the composition of the committee. As Mitchell wrote to me in an e-mail, “the narrow question of its composition is far outweighed by who it listens to and how it undertakes its work.”

An e-mail account, blog, or hosting open meetings would all be a good start. The committee should also hold meetings with students who have the experience of having cases heard by the Ad Board. We may never know how the Ad Board decides its cases, but we should at least know how the reform committee conducts its review.

It is perhaps the case that all of my worry and concern is a moot point. Perhaps the committee is getting a good balance of opinions and views among the students and faculty. But we have no way of verifying that, since nobody outside the committee knows what they are up to, the same way nobody outside the Ad Board knows how they come to their decisions, a fact that makes it quite difficult to argue with the forces for status quo.

Those of us who believe the Ad Board has much room for improvement just want to make sure this reform committee gets the whole truth and nothing but the truth. After all, Harvard’s motto is Veritas.


Jarret A. Zafran ’09 is a junior social studies concentrator in Leverett House.