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Ad Board's Advising System Faces Criticism

By Mercer R. Cook and Rebecca D. Robbins, Crimson Staff Writers

Part II of a four-part series analyzing how successful the 2009-2010 reforms have been in making the Administrative Board’s disciplinary process more educational, transparent, and empowering for accused students. Part IPart III, and Part IV were published Oct. 23, 25, and 26.

When Daniel learned that he was among dozens of students being investigated for cheating in Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress,” he set up meetings with five attorneys in the Boston area. All of them told him the same thing—do not talk to your resident dean.

Daniel’s resident dean will not vote on his case, but he is not his advocate, and nothing Daniel says to him will be kept confidential. In fact, Daniel’s resident dean, who like all other resident deans sits on the Ad Board, is required to relay anything Daniel says that is relevant to the case to the other Board members responsible for deciding his fate.

Now, as he drafts his statement and awaits his hearing before the subcommittee, Daniel, who requested that his name be changed because he does not want others to know that he is accused of cheating, refuses to communicate directly with his resident dean.

Daniel’s concerns about his resident dean’s conflicted interests are nothing new. In 2009, responding to a “perceived ‘dual role’” of resident deans, the committee charged with reforming the Ad Board recommended a changed role for the resident dean in the process.

Their recommendations, which have since been implemented, called for the Secretary of the Ad Board, John “Jay” L. Ellison, to deliver Ad Board cases to the accused student, a role that was previously held by the resident dean.

The Committee to Review the Administrative Board also advocated for a “more robust” role for personal advisers—typically a coach, faculty member, tutor, or proctor—whom a student can select to advise them in addition to their resident dean.

But today, with personal advisers rarely used, critics say that these reforms have had little impact in remedying what they describe as a deeply inadequate advising process for students facing disciplinary proceedings.

And this fall, as the massive Government 1310 scandal places unprecedented demands on the resident deans who are responsible for guiding their own students through the process and deliberating on the fates of dozens of others, critics say that the resident dean’s contradictory role is brought into even sharper focus.

THE PERSONAL ADVISER

Matthew L. Sundquist ’09, a former Undergraduate Council president who served on the reform committee, said that the committee’s recommendations came in a climate in which many perceived that the resident dean was pulled in multiple directions.

“There was a general impression among some people that resident deans had slipped into the role of serving as prosecution, defender, and jury for students,” Sundquist said.

Sundquist said that in conversations with committee members, students had expressed a “deep interest” in a greater role for personal advisers, who at that time could only offer moral support in hearings.

“We thought, if that’s what students want, and that’s what makes students comfortable, then let’s get that person in the room with the student” in a more empowered role, Sundquist said.

Today, personal advisers, whom accused students can select from among officers of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, enjoy greatly enhanced privileges. Personal advisers are now permitted to access all relevant documents pertaining to a case, accompany a student into the room of the proceedings, call recesses on behalf of the student, and address the Board if the student forgets to bring up relevant information.

However, these advisers are rarely used by students. Jeff Neal, a spokesperson for FAS, confirmed that “only a small percentage” of students make use of the option.

Biology professor Richard M. Losick, who has served as a personal adviser for students before the Ad Board, said he thinks freshmen are at a particular disadvantage in the Ad Board’s advisory system because they have had less time to develop close bonds with possible advisers.

But although current UC President Danny P. Bicknell ’13 acknowledged that freshmen face a slight inherent disadvantage in the advisory process, he said he thinks individual initiative often plays a larger role than class year in determining access to advising.

“You can’t necessarily say that time will make stronger relationships—a freshman may be able to establish the same strength of a relationship as a senior,” Bicknell said.

But Michael R. Schneider, a lawyer who has advised undergraduates facing the Ad Board, argued that even when personal advisers are used, they lack the training necessary to truly serve a student’s needs during the Ad Board process.

According to Neal, personal advisers do receive some training. Neal, who declined to speak in person or by phone about the Ad Board, wrote in an emailed statement that Ellison offers information to every adviser assigned to a case.

Still, the efficacy of this adviser briefing is unclear.

Natasha, a student who went before the Ad Board for a non-academic disciplinary case, chose her resident tutor as her personal adviser. However, Natasha’s personal adviser, a first-year tutor who had never been before the Ad Board during his time as an undergraduate at the College, admitted that he knew little about the Board’s processes.

Before he accompanied Natasha to her subcommittee hearing, he told her he didn’t know how to help her and could only offer moral support, recalled Natasha, who requested that her name be changed because she did not want it known that she has gone before Ad Board.

THE RESIDENT DEAN

Today, with few accused students taking advantage of the option to have a personal adviser in the Ad Board process, critics say that the flaws of the resident dean’s role in the process remain.

The Ad Board’s website states that the role of the student’s official Board representative—typically the resident dean—is that of a liaison: “He or she will be present at all meetings and will make certain that you are kept informed throughout the process. Your Board Representative also will present to the Board a full summary of the facts of the case in which you are involved; he or she will not advocate for you but will make certain that your perspective is clearly presented.”

But nowhere on the website is it explicitly stated that unlike certified mental health practitioners and lawyers, the confidentiality of a student’s conversations with his or her resident dean is not protected under the law.

In practice, Losick said, accused students often expect that their resident dean will act as their advocate and will respect the confidentiality of their communications.

“They’re assuming the resident dean is someone who they can confide in,” Losick said. ”I’ve seen time and again this is not the case—the resident dean is beholden to the Ad Board and not to the student.”

While Schneider said he always tells the students who consult him for advice to be completely honest with their resident dean, he also cautions them to be “extremely guarded” in these conversations.

“The resident deans are essentially conveyor belts of everything that you say back to the Ad Board,” Schneider said. “And so if you say something that depicts you in an improperly bad light, that’s going to get back to the Ad Board.”

And for some, the resident dean’s role as a “conveyor belt” is particularly troublesome in light of the current cheating scandal.

While administrators have said that they are reviewing each of the roughly 125 cases on an individual basis, Daniel said that the sharing of information among resident deans necessarily links what are supposed to be seen as unique cases.

“What I tell them could ultimately influence how they vote on other people’s cases,” Daniel said.

But some say that these criticisms miss the fact that resident deans do help students weather a difficult process.

Arthur, a student who was required to withdraw following a different disciplinary case, said his resident dean was nothing but supportive throughout the process.

“My dean was very patient with me and listened to all my ideas and brought all my proposals to the Ad Board, even though he knew they were unrealistic,” said Arthur, who requested that his name be changed because he did not want it to be known that he was forced to leave school.

Every current resident dean declined or did not return requests for comment on this article. But Paulette G. Curtis ’92, who served as resident dean of Dunster House from 2002 to 2008, said that while she was not an advocate for her students, she did not view her role as contradictory.

“Students were always told that we didn’t vote on their cases, and that I would do my best to represent their side of the story,” Curtis said. “We were as transparent as we could possibly be about the process.”

THE LAWYER

Schneider said that the College’s inadequate advising for students going through the Ad Board process undermines the credibility of the Board’s decisions.

“The lack of an real advocate inside the room with a student has really condemned the process to a farce,” he said. “Not allowing an experienced advocate for them really makes it very difficult for them to present a full-throated defense, and I think they really get hurt by it.” In Schneider’s opinion, this “experienced advocate” should be a lawyer.

However, the College has resisted allowing lawyers into the process, fearing that the addition of attorneys would detract from the educational value of the Ad Board by making it more legalistic.

Sundquist said the reform committee discussed the possibility of including lawyers in the process but was also wary of bringing people with a profit motive into the room.

Currently, lawyers are not allowed to be present at Ad Board proceedings, nor are they allowed to advocate on behalf of a student to Board members. Students are allowed to consult with lawyers, and they have certainly been doing so in the Government 1310—a number of students facing punishment have said they may sue Harvard if they feel they have not been treated fairly.

Schneider compared Harvard’s arrangement unfavorably to the disciplinary board at Boston University, where lawyers are allowed to perform the same roles of personal advisers at Harvard.

“The idea is not to get a bunch of lawyers in to help students lie or fib or cheat their way around the system,” Schneider said. “It’s to help students figure out how to frame their arguments, help students recognize what the most favorable evidence is for them, and to help them put their best foot forward.”

Peter F. Lake ’81, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who specializes in higher education law, identified a newly “burgeoning legalism” in other universities that places pressure on Harvard to modernize its disciplinary system.

At Rutgers University, lawyers are permitted to advise accused students during hearings; lawyers are also allowed to appear in proceedings at Stanford University, although students must represent themselves.

“Harvard’s system is a charming throwback to another era, and it will certainly be tested in what I think is a culture war,” Lake said.

—Staff writer Mercer R. Cook can be reached at mcook@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at rrobbins@college.harvard.edu.

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