Widgets Magazine


No Free Lunch: Toward a Real Student-Run Honor Code

Last week, on the advice on the U.S. Department of Education, President Hennessy’s office unilaterally lowered the standard of proof in Judicial Affairs cases involving sexual assault from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “a preponderance of the evidence.” While some might be frustrated that he failed to consult the student body in making this change, it’s altogether understandable; President Hennessy is responsible for a large check from the federal government that’s contingent on complying with its edicts.

More interestingly, this action preempted a current review of the Judicial Affairs committee that’s asking a more important question: what should the standard of proof for all cases be, and, more generally, how should the Judicial Affairs process be updated to make it more relevant? Last Tuesday, we participated in a somewhat under-attended event (we were the only two people there) with the committee doing the review designed to give students input on these questions. Their goals were simple and altogether admirable: produce a set of reforms that would simplify the system, make the student body feel more invested and most importantly, pass an up down referendum by the student body.

First, let’s deal with the standard of proof. Stanford is one of only a few universities to use “beyond a reasonable doubt” as the standard of proof in campus Judicial Affairs. That said, the committee itself made it clear that the standard, whatever it is, is the deciding factor in, at most, a handful of cases a year. That is, it’s not very often when a judicial board says after a preponderance of the evidence, “you’re guilty, but we just can’t get beyond our reasonable doubts.” The average Stanford student doesn’t know much about Judicial Affairs, but they do know that anything less than “beyond a reasonable doubt” sounds like a violation of their constitutional rights. Odds are, if you put anything other than “reasonable doubt” to a vote, it won’t pass. So keep it as it is—it isn’t broken, so don’t fix it.

On to real reform. The first and perhaps easiest reform to implement would be to increase the pool of potential judicial board members, the jury pool if you will. Currently, the Judicial Charter of 1997 states that the size of this pool will not be less than 30 students, faculty and staff, which inevitably means that the same few people will serve on most Judicial Affairs panels. This turns the entire process into something of a black box. Odds are, you don’t know anyone who’s had firsthand experience with Judicial Affairs, and if you do, it probably wasn’t on their terms.

If the pool was increased to say 300 and the composition of any individual panel was determined by lottery, not only would the process be less biased to the will of the same panel, but also its contact with the wider campus community would increase exponentially. The tradeoff is pretty obvious: it would be a lot more effort on the part of Judicial Affairs to train and manage a jury pool this large, but we think the benefits far outweigh the administrative overhead. The only way to get students to take ownership in the process is to get them involved; what better way then by increasing the cross section of campus that serves on hearing panels? A few students being consistently involved in a process that we don’t ever hear about doesn’t connect us to the proceedings, but this reform might.

Finally, the hardest but potentially most important reform needed is to systematically decrease the time it takes to resolve Judicial Affairs cases. The average case length for 2009-10 was 108 days. While this is an improvement on the 139 average for 2008-09, it is still unacceptable. With a quarter-long case length, those undergoing investigation are forced to deal with the matter for a significant portion of their Stanford careers. This isolates them from the student body and, as a corollary, isolates the student body from the process.

When discussing with the committee, it was difficult to determine if the case backlog was leading to the delay or if the delay was leading the case backlog. Either way, some combination of more staff and a generally accelerated process—stricter rules on response time and the like—is imperative. An even better if not somewhat impractical option would be to mandate a nonnegotiable five-week timeout on every case. If the Judicial Affairs Office fails to bring the case before a board in five weeks or less, the matter is simply dropped.

The goal of these reforms is simple—to foster the sentiment on campus that every student has a stake and vested interest in the honor code, fundamental standard and process utilized to uphold them. To accomplish them, Judicial Affairs needs to be removed from its black box and made a bigger part of the campus collective conscience. We need an understandable, understood and speedy process so that we as a student body buy into whatever justice that’s being administered on our behalf.


If you’re interested in applying to be the Judicial Affairs office’s ox driver, please direct your application to daveg4@stanford.edu and zhoberg@stanford.edu