Envisioning justice for students

Valentina Fung/Staff

For the most part, Cal students remain completely and blissfully detached from UC Berkeley’s conduct process and equally unaware of the many problems associated with its implementation. Yet for the fraction of students who find themselves accused of violating the code of conduct, the process immediately throws their college experience and future prospects into uncertainty, and any of its flaws and inefficiencies cause the students significant stress and injustice.

For the sake of these students, reforming the campus’s conduct process, which suffers from procedural bottlenecks and inconsistent enforcement, among other issues, has long been a top priority for the ASUC Student Advocate’s Office. SAO serves as the campus public defender, helping students address academic disputes, complete financial aid and residency appeals, file grievances and representing students in the conduct process.

Administered by the Center for Student Conduct, UC Berkeley’s code of conduct outlines the judicial processes by which the campus addresses student violations, ranging from substance abuse, harassment and theft to plagiarism and cheating. While SAO has consistently lobbied for changes in the campus’s conduct procedures over the years, the conduct process only recently came under heavy public criticism, when it proved to be ill-equipped to handle a large amount of cases related to a surge in student activism. These cases exposed systemic issues, including poorly managed procedural timelines, conflicts of interest, inconsistency and a lack of transparency.

In response to this criticism, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer charged a task force last fall to recommend revisions to the conduct process. The task force included administrators, faculty and students, including myself. Officially announced this summer, the 18 total recommendations have the potential to provide a fundamental makeover for our conduct process and turn it into a fair and smoothly functioning arbiter of justice on campus.

Of course, the success of even the most elaborate and well thought-out plans is entirely contingent on its smooth and complete implementation.

The university and administration do not have a habit of taking quick and decisive action, so it is with equal parts caution and optimism that I report that the implementation process is well under way and ahead of my own expectations.

Of the many recommendations, the most critical may be the creation of an ‘independent hearing officer’, who will oversee all procedural aspects of the conduct process, as well as concerns over the interpretation of the code itself. While it remains to be seen whether the IHO can serve effectively and independently, a selection committee with heavy student representation has already been formed.

The IHO is also crucial in ensuring that the conduct process for each accused student is completed within the allotted timeline. Over the last few years, the conduct process has suffered from an overload of cases, causing undue stress for many students as they waited indefinitely for the outcome of their cases. Eventually, the entire timeline for the process was suspended, leaving students in even more of a limbo. Under the new revisions, timeline extensions will become the exception. When they do occur, the extensions must be finite and communicated to the student at the beginning of the process.

In the past, the conduct process allowed for minimal flexibility in the sanctioning process. Students found in violation of the code of conduct, no matter how minor the situation, were almost always tagged with a record for seven years. This record followed students as they applied to graduate school and public employment, well after they left the Cal community. The task force’s recommendations create a new minor sanction that does not create a reportable conduct record for students with minor violations while still allowing the conduct process to track the violations internally and address subsequent breaches accordingly.

At the suggestion of the task force, the conduct process has also already revised its records retention policy. Instead of a blanket seven-year records maintenance policy, most conduct records are now kept for four years or until graduation, whichever comes first. Records for violent crimes and serious drug-related violations will be kept for the full seven years.

Much of the credit for the swift and effective start to the reform process is owed to the transparent leadership of Associate Dean of Students Christina Gonzales, who has taken over direct supervision of the Center for Student Conduct. Despite the encouraging developments outlined above, SAO remains conscious of the many previous failed attempts at conduct reform, mostly due to a lack of commitment and accountability during the implementation phase.

SAO will remain vigilant as it pursues these reforms and encourages the campus community to stay educated about ongoing developments related to the conduct process by visiting our website at http://advocate.berkeley.edu.

For all students facing disputes with the university, requests for free, confidential representation can be sent to [email protected]

Samar Shah is the ASUC student advocate for 2011-2012.