Extending the Arm of Campus Law

November 20, 2007

Plenty of colleges worry about student conduct away from campus, but few have the resources and authority to track it as effectively as they can on their own grounds. Several institutions, in an effort to reduce crime and serious violations of university policy, are considering proposed changes that would allow them to expand their jurisdictions.

Stanford University's judicial policy has long applied to on-campus activities, but a proposed amendment to the institution's charter would expand the control of the Board on Judicial Affairs to "any acts that threaten the safety and integrity of the university community regardless of where such acts occur."

The proposal has the support of undergraduate and graduate student governance groups, as well as the Faculty Senate, which sent it on to Stanford's office of the president.

Cornell University is considering similar revisions to its campus code of conduct that would allow its judicial administrator to investigate or respond to off-campus activity that "poses a substantial threat to the university's educational mission or property or to the health or safety of university community members."

The University Assembly, Cornell's governing body that includes students, employees and faculty, is supporting the measure. Presidential and trustee approval is needed for the measure to go into effect.

Mary Beth Grant, Cornell's judicial administrator, said many groups -- including an anti-hazing task force -- have been calling for off-campus jurisdiction for years.

"For the proponents of the change, it made little sense to have many university resources used to investigate hazing, an assault or a rape at a fraternity or res hall when the same misconduct at an apartment house 50 feet away may not have been investigated by the university," she said in an e-mail.

Eamonn Callan, chair of Stanford's Faculty Senate, a professor of education, and a former co-chair of the Board on Judicial Affairs, said the university must be involved in off-campus affairs because the assumption is a student should maintain a standard of decent behavior in all places.

Patrolling off-campus neighborhoods is already common at some institutions, such as Boston College, which sends an official in search of rowdy parties and unlawful students. Those behind the Stanford and Cornell proposals say they are designed to address major off-campus offenses and not minor infractions.

"This is not to punish students for having an open beer can a block away from campus," said Andy Cowan, a Cornell law student and vice chair of the Codes and Judicial Committee, which passed the draft. "The motivation is to respond to issues of violence like sexual assault in off-campus housing that have a connection back to the university."

Cornell's jurisdiction for handling student misconduct is currently limited to on campus and any place that's Cornell's property -- a remote research center or a campus abroad, for instance. (An employee driving a Cornell van while intoxicated would also be subject to review.) Only in the case of grave misconduct away from campus can the president disregard the code and take direct action, Cowan said.

If the code revisions pass, police officers or students could report an infraction that takes place off the campus to Grant, the judicial administrator. That is more likely to happen than the possibility of the administrator patrolling campus neighborhoods or scrolling through the police blotter looking for incidents, Cowan said, since the office is already busy with on-campus cases.

At Stanford, someone would have to file a complaint to initiate an investigation. A judicial officer would then determine whether there's sufficient evidence to take the case to a six-person judicial panel (made up mostly of students). Accused students at both Cornell and Stanford would be able to challenge at a hearing whether the incident rises to the level of a serious violation.

Cowan said some students might feel more comfortable reporting an incident internally rather than starting with law enforcement. Laurette Beeson, assistant dean of Stanford's Graduate Life office and a former judicial adviser in the Office of Judicial Affairs, said if a defense attorney declines to file charges, students should have another option.

Still, students like Rachel Dorfman-Tandlich, the Student Assembly appointee to the Codes and Judicial Committee at Cornell, initially expressed concerns that the new rules could lead to an abuse of university power.

"The classic example is getting caught with the open container, and I don't think Cornell should be searching for that," she said. "They don't have the staffing for that, and that shouldn't be their focus."

Dorfman-Tandlich said she and many other students are now convinced that the changes would better safeguard the campus. But other questions have been raised -- such as whether a student should be subject to "double punishment" (from campus officials and the outside legal system) and whether a university investigation could interfere with police work.

As Cowan puts it: "These are fundamentally different systems. Criminal courts can't expel, and colleges can't put someone in jail."

Grant said law enforcement would need to work even more closely with each other and with her office if jurisdiction is extended to off-campus locations.

Another criticism of the proposals is that the language used is too vague. Callan said an exhaustive list of possible serious infractions couldn't capture the range of circumstances in which a student might be deemed in breach of university code.

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