SINCE THE UNIVERSITY pulled the rusty old Committee on Rights and Responsibilities (CRR) out of the shed last spring to discipline a handful of anti-apartheid protesters, a lot of things have changed at Harvard.
New deans have taken the helm, one class of students has entered the real world, and another class has made its Harvard debut. Most, in fact all, people have grown older. Even the Quad renovations have began.
Many of the activists whose Harvard careers rest in the CRR's hands have moved on to other causes, like Medicare leaving South Africa far behind. They've begun setting up individual retirement accounts, buying extrastrength Polident, developing varicose veins and taking Doan's pills. Some--those four protesters who were to have graduated some time long, long ago--are sitting home in rocking chairs as their diplomas wither and yellow back in University Hall.
The seven professors who sit on the committee have grown weary, too. Many curtailed summers of research to be in town for hearings that students were going to boycott anyway. Now, five months to the day since most of the Harvard community first heard the letters C-R-R, the committee is still deliberating cases and faces the task of compiling a voluminous report on its investigations.
It's been a long time.
The seven professors who form the CRR are to be applauded for their cautious and conscientious approach to their task of disciplining students. It is a noble, and correct, impulse to value justice over expediency. But disregard for expediency can go only so far.
THE CRR ITSELF--perennial questions of legitimacy aside--has proven, even by administrators' reckoning, inefficient. This is partially because professors appointed to the committee in the last few years probably didn't spent a whole lot of time pondering their roles as disciplinarians. They were busy teaching students, not judging their extracurricular activitics. The CRR, in fact, had not been asked to hear a case for more than a decade, and now of the current members had sat on the committee then or before.
So when the nearly forgotten CRR was unexpectedly revived, there were a new little matters to be resolved.
First, the professors needed to be reminded that they were on the CRR. Then they had to meet each other. Then, as a group of scholars, they had to tackle the responsibility of reconstituting the body, deciding its procedures, scheduling hearings for the protesters and proceeding as a collective inquisitor, judge and jury.
The matter was further complicated when upperclass houses--which were asked to get together and nominate six students to the CRR--refused even to discuss the matter, and when student protesters said they would not defend themselves before the body.
Since the CRR began what has turned into a five-month saga, other disciplinary bodies have judged and levied decisions for cases involving their students in one incident. It took the Law School's Administrative Board three weeks to give 10 law students official slaps on the wrist for their participation in a sit-in last April. The Graduate School of Education quietly took care of one student in much the same manner last spring.
Meanwhile, 11 undergraduates and graduate school of arts and sciences students who also took part in the sit-in have started studying for midterms, simultaneously wondering whether they should start packing their bags and saying their goodbyes instead.
BECAUSE THE UNIVERSITY allows each of its schools autonomy over disciplinary proceedings, the CRR appears to have found itself in quite a bind.
Law students and undergraduates were charged with violating the same University rules at the same April 24 protest. If the Law School has already ruled that its students deserve warnings, one might wonder how the CRR could decide anything else. Any other ruling could potentially undermine the credibility of both bodies, to say nothing of evoking protests of unequal treatment from students.
The CRR might well find from its own independent investigations that the 11 undergraduate and GSAS activists involved in the sit-in also deserve warnings. But because the Law School Ad Board has set a precedent, who can know for sure how independent that decision truly is?
It is unfortunate that five months of CRR deliberations might have been rendered superfluous because the Law School Ad Board moved more swiftly. It is more unfortunate that Harvard's disciplinary system is structured such that objective decisions could, in theory, be compromised for consistency's sake.
Disciplinary bodies are in the business of meting out justice. They should not be simulataneously put in the position of sparing the University embarrassment.
It hardly seems fair that one Harvard student might be warned, while another Harvard student might be expelled, for committing the same transgression. It is equally strange that Harvard continues to defend a disciplinary body that students won't even recognize as legitimate and that takes almost as long to figure out what it will do as it takes to do it.
The University would be well-advised to assure that students in the College and the various graduate schools receive identical discipline when they commit identical offenses.
It would also be well-advised to do so before we all grow too old to care.
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