Columbia’s Rules of Conduct, which govern protests and demonstrations on campus, are currently under review by the University Senate. Protest proponent Julia Goodman explores the potential impact of impending changes. Those interested in updates to the Rules of Conduct should attend the town hall this Friday from 4 to 6 pm in 309 Havemeyer. All those with a CUID are welcome.
On Columbia’s webpage on university regulations, under the policies on religious holidays and hazing, lies the little-understood section known as the Rules of Conduct. Introduced after the 1968 protests, the Rules are currently under review by the University Senate Committee on Rules of University Conduct. Any potential changes must be finalized by the end of next semester in order to be approved by the Trustees in June, before the retirement of Rules Administrator and Vice Provost for Academic Administration Dr. Stephen Rittenberg. The last updates to the Rules of Conduct were made in the 80’s, so it’s not a stretch to say that any changes will likely remain in effect for years, if not decades. In an email sent Monday, Sejal Singh and Jared Odessky, the two undergraduate students on the Rules Committee, said, “This is perhaps the single most important structural change happening at Columbia in our four years here.”
According to Singh and Odessky, “The Committee has identified the hearing process as one key area for review.” Members of the Rules Committee are generally not allowed to comment on the proceedings, so we can only speculate on possible changes they are considering. However, President Bollinger believes the external judicial process is an “odd” remnant of a time long past when “people didn’t like administrators.” If those sentiments are shared by administrators and faculty on the Rules Committee, the Committee may be planning to eliminate the external process altogether.
Currently, only serious violations, those for which the lightest possible punishment is suspension, can go through the external judicial process. For simple violations, the only option is Dean’s Discipline. This process was exemplified in the 1993 case of Benjamin Jealous (who would go on to become president of the NAACP). He and several other students were accused of violating the Rules of Conduct after protesting the demolition of the site of Malcolm X’s assassination, which Columbia had acquired a few years previously. As Jealous and other students wrote in an op-ed in the February 2nd, 1993 issue of the Spectator, they were faced with the impossible choice between Dean’s Discipline and the external process, in which “the University does not assist you in locating or retaining an adviser, and hires outside criminal or corporate attorneys to construct and prosecute their case against you,” a practice that is unusual within the Ivy League and at other universities.
Yet Jealous chose the external process, because the prospect of being tried under Dean’s Discipline was infinitely more “scary and confusing.” Dean’s Discipline not only denies respondents the option of a lawyer or any outside council, but also eliminates the opportunity to present evidence or call witnesses. And unlike the external process, which is judged by an outside attorney, Dean’s Discipline relies on the decisions of Columbia administrators, who may often have conflicts of interest in such cases.
The external judge in Jealous’s case, Judge Harold Tyler, had his own qualms about the minimum punishment allowed by the Rules. Tyler found four of the students guilty of the actions of which they had been accused, but noted, “I wish that I had more flexibility in imposing sanctions other than the rules permit.” His sentiments were quoted in an article in the Spectator on March 26th, 1993, which added: “These remarks corroborate statements made by Tyler during the hearing that he found the rules inordinately severe, and lend credence to arguments made by many who wish to see the rules changed.” Tyler himself recommended that his decision be appealed to the University Judicial Board.
Whoever takes over the role of Rules Administrator will have the same discretion Dr. Rittenberg currently does over which cases to pursue. It is impossible to know how many accusations are brought to Rittenberg’s attention, as any member of the Columbia community can accuse someone of violating the policy, and reports are not public. But, for example, in the Jealous case, although roughly thirty students were accused of violating the policy, Rittenberg only chose to try seven of them. The last students who were actually punished under the Rules, to our knowledge, were those involved in the 2006 Minuteman protests. (Under FERPA, the Dean’s Discipline process is not public, but unlike the hearing process for gender-based misconduct, students are free to discuss the outcome.) Thus, it is likely that Rittenberg has ignored many of the complaints brought to his attention. He is rumored to be unusually sympathetic to student protest—this makes sense, given that he has written extensively on other protest movements. In this context, it is more important than ever for the Rules to be clear, since the next Rules Administrator may not be as lenient with their interpretation.
The Rules contain incredibly broad language about what sort of activity may lead to punishment. Everything from “briefly interrupt[ing] a University function” to “caus[ing] minor property damage or loss” is a simple violation of the Rules. Nearly every demonstration on Low steps can be heard from certain Hamilton classrooms—which could be considered disruptive. Nearly every flyering campaign has the potential to remove paint from walls—which is technically minor property damage. “Enter[ing] a private office without authorization” is a simple violation, while “hold[ing] or occupy[ing]” an office is a serious violation. Such regulations cover the actions of Columbia Prison Divest last year in which they entered President Bollinger’s office and read a letter to his Deputy Chief of Staff.
As stated on the university website, the Rules “are University-wide and supersede all other rules of any school or division,” and “apply to all members of the University community: administrators, administrative staff, research staff, library staff, supporting staff, faculty, and students.” Ultimately, the number of protest activities potentially open to sanction is disturbingly high, and the possibility that the external process may be eliminated makes the lack of clarity all the more troubling. It is up to us, as members of this University, to speak up about the aspects of the Rules we believe are problematic; otherwise, we may find the changes made are for the worse.