The Risk of Reversing After The Fact

By Alessandria Schumacher, Middlebury Student

In the weeks since the Charles Murray event, many of our peers have been called in “to talk” with administrators about their actions. Many have left those talks with punishments. Others of us, myself included, are wondering if we’ll get the email or if our faces were not caught on camera. As uncertainty wears on, the idea of revising the handbook or waiving disciplinary action seems appealing, especially given that punishing students could do more harm than good for individuals and for our campus community as a whole. However, I see potential long-term danger in major steps to revise the handbook in hindsight or in efforts to waive the judicial process in this case.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the College’s process for administering disciplinary action is poor, the judicial process needs help (see our Editorial) and the handbook, especially regarding protest, needs revisiting.

My ideological qualms about major after-the-fact revisions begin with the idea that what is applied in one situation must also be okay in another.

Let’s say there is a theoretical case under consideration by the college judicial process regarding stalking. Full disclosure, I know little about the particulars of the judicial process or stalking policy, so I am keeping this general to make a conceptual point.

Jack really likes Jen, but Jen is not into Jack at all and she keeps telling him that. However, he will not stop texting her, going out of his way to “run into” her and getting people to invite him to places where she will be. Jen is more than annoyed, she is creeped out. Jack has never physically harmed her, but this is wearing on her psychologically. How far might he take this?

Jen goes to the judicial board to “press charges” for violations of handbook rule ABC. According to the handbook, Jack is violating theoretical rule ABC. Judicial board determines disciplinary action X fits the offense.

However, they decide, “our rules are too harsh, let’s revise it and give Jack Y (milder) disciplinary action instead.”

Scenario 1: Perhaps punishment X really was too harsh, so after-the-fact revision makes sense. Perhaps what is happening now in the Charles Murray aftermath is too harsh, as well, and should be reconsidered. Let me add one more twist.

Scenario 2: Jack is from a “Middlebury family.” His parents went here and make a lot of money. They are a prime family to court for large donations in the near future. Maybe they (or their lawyers) have even contacted the administration as their son faces the judicial process (sound familiar?). Now the seemingly benign move of after-the-fact revisions to a policy deemed “too harsh” seem more like the administration bending to outside pressure, caring more about reputation than students, and being unbearably opaque — all actions many of us believe the College does all too often.

I am fully aware that “morality” falls on opposite sides in these examples: Jack is the “bad guy,” whereas with those facing discipline for the Murray event were fighting for justice. I do not intend to equate their actions, but rather to highlight the same process that must handle both situations.

I worry about going down the proverbial slippery slope. If we make major after-the-fact revisions now, is it okay to do so the next time, when perhaps we do not agree with the ideological intent of those who violated college policy, like in the example about Jack and Jen? If the judicial process is side-stepped this time, would the administration choose to sidestep it in a future incident where there may be external factors — like money and reputation — that would favor not taking disciplinary action against someone — like Jack — who really deserves it?

At what point could that lead to undermining the judicial process? While far from perfect, I think having a handbook and internal judicial process is better than having discipline without possibility for a hearing or only the option to press charges be in real courts.

While many of us, myself included, hope the disciplinary actions are light, let us consider the ideological and long-term implications of asking the College to majorly revise the handbook now for something that happened in the past or to not take disciplinary action. Remember, we would not want that to happen in the case of Jack and Jen; maybe I’m a cynical senior, but I don’t trust the administration to make exception for student pressure, but not for external or financial pressure.

To the administration, I understand that you have to uphold the handbook and judicial process and I support that. Please consider the circumstances of individual students subject to discipline and the fact that some of these very students receiving disciplinary action were actually willing to work with you before.

Ultimately, the purpose of breaking an unjust law or a bad policy is to change it, so let’s do that. To the administration, please, with the input of students and faculty, carefully examine and reconsider the handbook, especially aspects that have come to light around student protest and administering disciplinary action. And don’t forget, any college process is done better if it’s done with greater transparency.

Local EditorAlessandria Schumacher ’17 writes about revising college protest policy.