The Office of Community Standards (OCS) at this school is entrusted with a lofty moral mandate: They alone are singularly responsible for ensuring that the Honor Code and Fundamental Standard of the University are upheld by all members of the Stanford community. The office’s task is a thankless one, and one constantly beset by controversy and universal scrutiny; I do not envy them.
With that acknowledged, however, OCS has failed that mandate. The office has created a culture of inconsistency and unreliability that is, by any reasonable standards, unacceptable for a body entrusted with so much authority. The incompetence they have wielded with such fervor has left a tangible effect on this campus and continues to impact potentially innocent students in profound ways.
The most public realm through which OCS decisions play out is in that of investigations against Greek houses. To my own knowledge, the office currently has five known, active investigations running against four different fraternities.
OCS’ track record suggests that these investigations will have neither impartiality nor just results. In recent months, the office has made much more frequent their use of interim sanctions. These are an optional measure the office can indiscriminately elect to take, that effectively implements a presumption of guilty-before-proven-innocent. The sanctions allow the University to place punitive measures on an organization as soon as a complaint is filed with the OCS office.
What this means is that organizations or students can (and currently do) find themselves being punished for a crime for which they have not been given a platform to respond. It marks a total collapse of OCS’ credibility and makes an absolute mockery of the judicial impartiality the office should be expected to uphold. There are currently multiple organizations who find themselves on social holds and probations owing to charges that have been levied against them – charges for which investigations have yet to even begin.
In one particularly recent example, a prominent Stanford fraternity has been on probation all year for an incident that happened in September. And yet, interviews – and much less appeals or panels – for that investigation have yet to even begin. OCS has made it their policy to punish houses for extended periods of time without providing any manner through which the groups can challenge or even discuss the charges at hand.
This example is made all the more egregious when one considers the fact that the Office of Community Standards maintains no less than four full-time employees and ancillary volunteers and staff that include a Judicial Panel Pool, Board on Judicial Affairs and Organizational Conduct Board.
Now, perhaps I am misjudging the scope of the mandate given to OCS, but I personally find it somewhat difficult to believe that despite all the institutional support they are given, OCS cannot even begin the preliminary steps of an investigation multiple months after the alleged violations occurred. To then automatically assume guilt and allow their own sluggishness to fester in the form of real and ongoing punishments for students is almost unfathomable. The office’s attitude towards the case belies a total lack of regard for the welfare of the students under scrutiny and suggests that there could be more deeply held biases at play.
No one has ever claimed that OCS creates a free and fair court on par with that of a legitimate legal body. Its current manifestation, however, represents something far worse – a kangaroo court where the charges aren’t jokes and the participants stand to have their lives affected in very real ways. It represents institutional ineptitude and moral authoritarianism taken to their logical extremes.
If these improprieties were an isolated incident, one could forgive this as a mistaken abuse of power. In its recent history, however, OCS has never proven itself capable of properly handling the authority it’s been given.
In another OCS Greek life investigation from the previous school year, the Fountain Hopper (FoHo) newsletter reported a series of damning accusations about the office’s investigative procedures that seem remarkably similar and relevant to the cases currently open.
In their campus-wide email, the FoHo claimed that OCS’ report on the matter included lies, unsubstantiated accusations and blatantly untrue claims, revealed confidential, FERPA-protected personal health information, fabricated key investigative evidence and failed to include a single interview (sound familiar?) from the case’s lead investigator.
The end result was so bad, in fact, that University Provost Persis Drell was forced to implement a “never-before-used special panel process” in order to wade through the mess that OCS had created. The panel found that many of the supposed violations committed by the fraternity were unsubstantiated. As the FoHo said themselves, “If recent developments are any indication, [OCS] can’t be trusted to treat you or anyone else fairly.”
Beyond Greek organizations, OCS has also spearheaded several other highly controversial investigations, the most notable of which was the 2017 case against the Stanford Marching Band. Its findings called for the wholesale gutting of LSJUMB, including provisions that attempted to replace Band leadership with University-led committees and other punitive social sanctions. The report stated that while the results of the investigation could be appealed, the findings behind it couldn’t be. These findings, however, were largely dubious and tended to punish the Band for things that were out of their control.
In the beginning of that same school year, the deep, internal issues with the office were put on blast to the campus when a laughably tight-lipped letter from the University’s associate provost was published in The Daily, explaining a “comprehensive staffing change for the office due to personnel matters.” It was later reported that the entire OCS staff either resigned or was fired due to “controversy over how investigations were being handled.” The office remained empty for almost the entirety of fall quarter.
Clearly, incompetency is nothing new for OCS. Even going back as far as 2012, the office was accused of “phenomenal misconduct” and “student-journalist intimidation” by the independent Student Justice Project. The list of sins goes on and on, almost exhaustingly so.
I’ll finish this in the same way that it began – with an acknowledgement that the Office of Community Standards has an incredible difficult job and one that is, by its very nature, unlikely to be popular with students. Nonetheless, the office has managed to redefine bureaucratic ineptitude in a never-ending game of limbo that seems to ask, “How low can OCS go?” The office has consistently assumed the guilt of the accused and practiced improper investigation procedures. They can no longer be trusted with the authority they have been given.
Contact Harrison Hohman at hhohman ‘at’ stanford.edu.