Widgets Magazine

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.”

About Marshall Watkins

Marshall Watkins is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily, having previously worked as the paper's executive editor and as the managing editor of news. Marshall is a junior from London majoring in Economics, and can be reached at mtwatkins "at" stanford "dot" edu.
  • o11

    Can 100% corroborate the experiences of these case studies. I was one of the lucky ~13% acquitted – props to these people for then speaking up about it, as most people, like me, thought it would be wiser not to. I love(d) Stanford, yet this left my feelings for the University tainted.

  • I’m not sure if this is officially true, but I have heard of instances in which the accusers have not been identified and evidence has not been introduced. Is there no right to face your accuser?

  • give me my righs

    A friend was accused by someone sitting multiple rows away of having looked on someone’s paper on a final. He was eventually acquitted, but it took weeks–during which time he was not allowed to register for classes, was told not to talk to any of the people in the (very large) class, many of whom he lived with, and was not able to register for classes. So he had to go to the professor of each class he needed to take to remain on track to graduate and explain that he was being investigated for cheating. That’s incredibly prejudicial, far before anything that resembled proof of guilt. The fact that one person can arbitrarily inflict that on someone is absurd. I could easily do this to anyone in any of my classes that I was angry with, with huge implications on their wellbeing and no risk to myself.

    The judicial board seems to be hiding behind the ‘this shouldnt be a legalistic process’ mentality. They say that we get all these benefits from being judged by our peers, but I cant be alone in thinking that having 3/15 undergraduates on the board would hardly constitute being judged by my peers. And they use this to excuse not giving students their rights–their right to defend themselves, the right to the presumption of innocence, the right to face your accuser.

    This is not a “learning process,” Mr. York. Having your college career derailed by arbitrary accusations teaches you nothing, except to hate the system and those propping it up. Lesson learned.

  • due process

    The Stanford Judicial Charter allows the accused to cross-examine the accuser. Should the accuser wish to remain anonymous, they are required to withdraw their complaint.

    “15. To call witnesses on their behalf at Judicial Panel hearings and to cross-examine witnesses against them. The Board on Judicial Affairs shall have the power to specify in its bylaws limited types of evidence that shall be considered admissible without cross-examination. In all other cases, evidence provided by a witness who is unwilling or unable to be cross-examined will be
    disregarded.” – Stanford Judicial Charter 1997

  • Get your facts straight

    The Board on Judicial Affairs is the body with 3 undergraduates. The hearing panels are 3 or 4 students out of a total 6 panelists.

    Your college career is not derailed by an accusation. Or by a charge. Or by a responsible verdict. None of the 3 are ever reported outside of the University or included on your transcript. How is that “derailing” your career?

    Get your facts straight before you speak up.

  • due process

    any law, business or medical school is going to ask for this information. It may not be on your transcript, but it will be reported nonetheless. This is certainly potentially “derailing.”

    I know of a few people who have been through judicial hearings, and it has always been at the most two students on the panel. I’d advise you to read the hyperlinked case study – it’s pretty revealing and frankly quite scary.

    No idea why you’re so butthurt, as it seems like these students have a legitimate case and it should be a concern for all students.

  • yeah, but…

    It sounds, from the report, that this has not been adhered to. The bulk of the report is basically accusations that those in charge of the system were not following their own rules, or even aware of them.

  • Concerned Student

    I think every student at Stanford should read this report. If true, it is incredibly disappointing that staff members acted in the way they did. This should definitely be investigated by a university committee. Specifically, if any of Mr. Yuen and Mr. Graves’ actions as stated in the report are true, their firing should be seriously considered. This case’s proceeding could be a huge violation of students’ rights. As I read this report, I was shocked by the gross negligence and ridiculous actions by members of the Office of Judicial Affairs…

  • Bob

    As an attorney who has advised and guided several students through the Judicial Council process, I applaud the efforts of the Daily to expose what my colleagues and I refer to as the “Stanford Kangaroo Court.” There is indeed a presumption of guilt, no actual due process and the misapplication of legal standards by very unsophisticated Judicial Council staffers who have no idea what they are doing. This not only leads to the infliction of emotional distress, but also the wrong result in numerous cases. It would be completely ridiculous, except that it has seriously impacted and disrupted lives in a manner irresponsible and reprehensible for an academic institution. A thrice convicted drug dealer has more rights in the legal world than an average Stanford student dragged through this Inquisition-like process. When I was in college, if a professor had a question about a student’s behavior, he called the student into the office to discuss it. He is, after all, the teacher and he is paid to fully explain policies, which may be unclear. However, through the Judicial Council process, the professor is not even allowed to talk to the student. Absolutely absurd. I have been appalled by this system. My colleagues seriously considered calling the New York Times for a full investigation. It was a story that needed to be exposed and, which must lead to vast systemic changes in order to ensure the rights of students.

  • Echo

    I wish to completely echo the sentiments articulated above. Judicial Affairs (aka The Office of Community Standards) at Stanford is indeed a Kangaroo Court. The panelists, who generally have good intentions, are completely misguided by irresponsible and negligent Judicial Affairs staffers, including Morris Graves and Rick Yuen. Morris Graves is useful when it comes to advising the accused. Absolutely useless. While lawyers are completely and utterly discouraged from participating in the procedures, accused students would be absolutely helpless without their guidance. While Judicial Affairs maintains that the Judicial Affairs system is not a legal procedure but rather an educational one, the proceeding are anything but educational. Rather, it is punitive: the sole purpose of the process is to find “responsibility,” not justice. The presumption of guilt is assumed upon entering the proceedings. Precedent of sanction is the given outcome, and mitigating circumstances are rarely if ever considered. Those on the panels are trained to find students responsible, told that “if their accused’s story seems reasonable, it may actually be a sign of guilt.” I know this to be true from firsthand experience and it is absolutely ludicrous. The kangaroo court at Stanford has very real implications for students found responsible (which is more often than not, their inevitable fate), and many of them are not even given a fair chance to testify to their innocence. The entire system needs to be reformed, starting with performance evaluations (which should unquestionably lead to the firing) of the Judicial Affairs’ managers and staff members, beginning with Morris Graves and Rick Yuen.

  • echo

    Morris Graves is USELESS* when it comes to advising the accused

  • +1


  • Steven

    I’m wondering why so many students give the Office of Judicial Affairs such high reviews if the process is so truly fundamentally flawed?

    Are they just not aware of the improper conduct they’ve been exposed to?

    Or perhaps are extraordinarily misconducted cases more likely to come to news attention while hundreds of others proceed without incident, and indeed positive reviews?

    Or is our system of gathering reviews, as explained in this article, flawed and biased?

  • Guest

    My guess is that the students with the positive reviews aren’t aware of the improper conduct.

    Think about a student who gets no representation. He goes along with the process without once demanding more professionalism and rule adherence from the arbitrators. The authorities play the role of good cop, trying to build a case while appearing outwardly friendly.

    Now in comes the representative, most likely a professional attorney. He encounters improper conduct, stuff he may not even see in the courtroom, and he refuses to let his client play along. Imagine what a frustration this man must be! It is only natural for the authorities to then become frustrated with the student, who refuses to speak without the presence of his representative. No more obedient student. And no more Mr. Good Cop – that sh*t won’t fly no more.

    A cow herded peacefully into a slaughterhouse likely carries with it no resentment. But now imagine a cow who knows what’s at the end of those wooden fences. The cow turns to run back, and the herders grab their electric spears. The cow was already angry, now he’s Pissed with a capital P. As the Bible proclaims: Hater’s gonna hate.

  • Guest

    This is why students (anyone, for that matter) needs legal representation, people who do everything in their power to make sure the rules are being followed.

    If rules aren’t adhered to in the actual judicial system, then how can we trust a grab bag of university students, administrators, and faculty members to follow official codes of conduct?

  • Recourse?

    I just had to go through U.S.C.’s Student Judicial Affairs office. I felt that their treatment of my case was very harsh. An attorney could be present – for only cases that were more severe, and the attorney can not speak on the student’s behalf. I am wondering if there is any legal recourse, that goes beyond a university’s jurisdiction, for students. I have been working for 20 + years. I know that when I was an employee, my employer would have taken a very different action than my professor, out of fear of not being sued. I felt that if my case had gone before a court, I would not have been treated this way.

    The Student Judicial Affairs process is perhaps a process geared for students who are just entering the workforce. As was explained to me, this is, roughly, ‘all in the name of teaching a student a valuable lesson before they start any careers.’ To me, this was insulting, especially when I am aware of how employees, adults, people – basically non-students, would be treated otherwise – with the utmost concern to avoid a possible lawsuit. After this whole process, I do feel that the Student Judicial Affairs process is a very biased one, against the student.

    Anyone have any legal recourse suggestions?

    This has left me with a very bad opinion for U.S.C.
    After this, none of my money will go to support their programs.

  • Stanford alumni

    Bob, is there a way to get in touch with you?