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Case study finds flawed, slanted judicial process

Students subject to the University’s judicial process may be exposed to a system implicitly slanted towards finding respondents guilty and willfully indifferent to rights enshrined in the Student Judicial Charter of 1997, according to a case study of a 2011 judicial proceeding. The study was undertaken by the three students acquitted of plagiarism charges in the 2011 case and their alumni representatives.

“Unless it’s entirely clear that you’re innocent, you’re pretty much [presumed] guilty,” reflected one of the acquitted students, a current senior. “They’ll go after you to get a conviction.”

University administrators, meanwhile, acknowledged flaws within the process but emphasized efforts to correct those shortcomings while depicting the case in question as an outlier.

 

Extensive judicial abuses

The case study references the experiences of three students charged with plagiarism in a June 2011 human biology final. All three students were eventually acquitted—though two of the three were only one vote removed from a guilty finding—in November 2011, but only after undergoing a process that, according to Bob Ottilie ’77, who represented one of the students, showed extensive misconduct by the University.

“We have absolute proof that there were gross, continuous [and] serial violations of the [Judicial] Charter,” Ottilie emphasized. “At a minimum, you have to stop this process until you can assure [participants] that you’ve stopped the violations.”

Such violations of the Judicial Charter, as alleged by the study, include efforts to discourage students from calling witnesses on their behalf or from cross-examining incriminatory witnesses; the selection of an untrained and biased set of panelists; the presentation of inadmissible evidence; efforts by a nominally impartial Judicial Officer to pursue a guilty finding by the selective admission and exclusion of evidence and witnesses; and the bringing of charges without the participation of the original student complainant and without—for one student—any evidence at all.

“The presumption of guilt permeated this entire process,” Ottilie said. “Everything that was done could only have been done with a presumption of guilt…The Charter was being violated at every step of the process.”

Both Rick Yuen and Morris Graves, the case’s Judicial Officer and Judicial Advisor respectively, declined to comment for this article.

Ottilie expressed concern that similar misconduct had taken place in other cases brought by the Office of Judicial Affairs, which has since been renamed the Office of Community Standards.

“This isn’t one or two people,” he asserted. “This was an office that was out of control at the time.”

Describing the Office of Community Standard’s conviction rate as artificially high, Ottilie suggested that past cases in which anonymity had been granted to the complaining party—denying the respondent the opportunity to cross-examine the complainant—should be reviewed and, if appropriate, their verdicts set aside.

“John [Martin ’80, a lawyer who represented another student in the case] and I agree that there’ve been scores—or even more—of students who have been convicted in hearing processes in which their fundamental rights were violated,” Ottilie said.

During the 2010-11 academic year, the Office of Community Standards obtained guilty findings in 87 percent of Fundamental Standard and Honor Code cases that went to a hearing for determination of guilt.

The student against whom there had been no initial complaint—and who still received three votes, or two fewer than necessary, in favor of a guilty finding from the six-member panel—expressed certainty that he would have been found guilty in the absence of legal representation.

“There’s no doubt we would have lost [without counsel],” he said. “[The judicial officers] were aggressive, they intimidated witnesses, they didn’t allow fair process…It was in all senses a shitshow.”

The student singled out Morris Graves as particularly negligent in upholding student rights.

“It’s his duty to protect student rights,” the student complained. “He was absolutely spineless there.”

“People in the Office of Judicial Affairs jumped with both feet on the scales of justice,” Ottilie added. “Had those three not been represented, they would have been convicted.”

ASSU Executive Billy Gallagher ’14 expressed concern about the case study’s findings and noted that he had personally encountered students with other negative accounts of the University’s judicial process.

“It’s disturbing…It just doesn’t seem like the Stanford we all know and love,” Gallagher said. “It’s just scary to see the system work that badly.”

 

Changes undertaken

Dean of Student Life Chris Griffith framed the case cited in the study as an outlier, citing the generally positive nature of feedback solicited from students who have gone through the judicial process.

“We’ve gotten really good feedback from the students who’ve come through our process,” Griffith affirmed, describing criticisms of administrators’ impartiality as unusual.

“The Office is very conscious of rules and protections,” added Jonathan York ’13, student co-chair of the Board on Judicial Affairs. “I’ve heard more students be grateful and express appreciation for what they do than criticism.”

York and Griffith noted that several of the suggestions raised by the case study—such as creating specific training for student panel chairs and devising a formal procedure for determining evidentiary standards and admissibility—had been identified in both an internal review process undertaken by the Vice Provost for Student Affairs—the Charter’s first since 1997—and in a report by an external consultant.

“A lot of the things in the case study we’re currently reviewing in subcommittees,” York noted. “We’ve addressed so many of those things…the Internal Review Panel was really, really comprehensive…[Ottilie] gave us a little bit of a different perspective, but he didn’t teach us anything new.”

Griffith noted, however, that revising certain aspects of the process might produce inadvertent side effects. For example, she said that by omitting the previously supplied warning to student respondents to not contact witnesses, student respondents might be more likely to do so. Griffith added that this could put student respondents at a greater risk of being perceived as intimidating witnesses—itself a violation of the Fundamental Standard. The revised notification currently contains a disclaimer to that effect.

York disputed the need for any delay in hearing cases while improvements were implemented.

“A lot of the things in [the case study] are concerning,” he acknowledged. “I don’t think this is a systemwide problem…but there is room for systemwide improvement. We’ve taken steps in the right direction.”

“We don’t see these as radical changes to the process, because the [Internal Review Panel] said this process isn’t broken,” added Koren Bakkegard, director of the Office of Community Standards. “We’re always looking for opportunities to improve and refine…I don’t see it as something that would change outcomes but [rather as] something that would improve the process for the future.”

David Hsu, a graduate student who previously served on judicial panels, noted that, in his experience, the training offered to panelists was sufficiently comprehensive given the absence of exposure to a real hearing. Hsu also defended the high percentage of guilty findings in cases brought by the Office of Community Standards.

“I’ve never been in a case where the outcome was guilty and I…felt any discomfort,” Hsu emphasized. “They may turn out mostly guilty…but it’s because the evidence is very heavily against the person.”

Ottilie alleged, however, a lack of responsiveness by University administrators and argued that more explicit leadership from senior University leaders—including President John Hennessy—is required to ensure improvements are made permanent and that sufficient oversight is exercised.

“The University has to ultimately make certain that any fixes are institutionalized,” he said. “There are already rules there. The issue is making sure that people are enforcing their rules.”

“I cannot allow any client to have a case heard by either [Yuen or Graves], knowing what’s in this report,” Ottilie added. “You just can’t fix that…We have the best Charter. It’s just not enforced.”

Gallagher said that he and fellow ASSU Executive Dan Ashton ’14 plan to attend an Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs staff meeting today to better understand the issue before working with administrators on solutions.

“This is what Dan and I meant [during the election] when we said that things will come up that we haven’t planned for,” Gallagher noted. “We have to see how things unfold.”

 

Discipline and education

According to Ottilie, conversations with University administrators regarding the case repeatedly referenced a “discipline system,” a characterization that Griffith and Bakkegard contested in favor of defining the process as educational.

“It really is a conversation,” Bakkegard said. “I’m sure [that] for the responding student…it’s a difficult one to have. But the idea is not to prosecute the student, but to have a conversation about what occurred.”

“One of the most powerful statements made [in the internal review]…was to say we need to remain an educational process and resist the temptation to become legalistic,” Griffith added. “I believe that.”

York echoed the inclination to distance the process from “legalistic” practices, describing the student-run process as conveying both responsibilities and privileges.

“You appear before your peers [and] you have the opportunity to present your case,” he emphasized. “If you’re found responsible, you do face the consequences, but the punishments aren’t meant to be debilitating…This is [primarily] a learning process.”

Ottilie insisted, however, on the value of both educating students—so that they might make full use of that opportunity—and approaching the judicial process in a more structured and legally-inclined manner.

“All these procedural protections…are designed to enhance the quality of evidence that comes in,” he said. “You [then] have the highest possible chance of getting the right result.”

As an example, Ottilie cited another case in which a student was evicted from Row housing as a result of an altercation, after a process in which the Residence Dean handling the case precluded the student from speaking to exculpatory witnesses and declined to interview those witnesses herself. Once counseled to the contrary by a private attorney, the student overturned the decision with declarations from over 60 witnesses.

Bakkegard estimated that only a minority of students charged through the judicial process actually contest the allegations, instead choosing to take advantage of an “early resolution option” program that involves just a sentencing hearing after the admission of culpability.

While Ottilie noted that such a program might implicitly suggest more lenient punishments and thus encourage false admissions of guilt, Bakkegard and Assistant Dean of the Office of Community Standards Jamie Pontius-Hogan noted that penalties largely conformed to standard sanctions that would otherwise be levied.

Turning to the broader picture, Ottilie framed effectively strengthening the judicial process as potentially allowing the University to set a precedent on an issue—student rights in judicial processes, from plagiarism to sexual assault—that has increasingly become a national one.

“This is going on elsewhere,” he noted. “This is a crisis for Stanford—are we going to be judged by the crisis or by our response to it?”

Griffith acknowledged the value of greater student participation in creating and sustaining an optimal judicial process.

“This is a process that demands consistent input and feedback from students,” she emphasized. “It’s a student-centered process.”

“There can be kinks when you have a student-run process,” York acknowledged. “In the long run, the benefits of having a student-run process are immense. If that means we have to keep working at it, so be it.”

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