Legislative hearing questions OSI process

Photo courtesy of Gene Phillips

President G.P. “Bud” Peterson spoke before a subcommittee of the Georgia House Appropriations Committee on Jan. 25 in contribution to a conversation about due process in collegiate judicial proceedings involving students.

The hearing was convened by State Representative Earl Ehrhart, who chairs an appropriations subcommittee in the House which supervises university spending.  Ehrhart had previously expressed concerns regarding the Office of Student Integrity’s (OSI) decision to suspend Phi Delta Theta for one year following an alleged racial incident.

In addition to state legislators, the hearing was attended by numerous Tech officials, including President Peterson and Director of Student Integrity Peter Paquette. Also in attendance were numerous witnesses, including the mother of a student found to have violated Tech’s sexual misconduct and alcohol policies and more than a dozen members of Phi Delta Theta.

“Georgia Tech is committed to maintaining a learning environment that is safe and affirms the dignity, respect and values of our campus community,” President Peterson said in his opening statement. “We expect every member of our community to practice the highest ethical principles and standards of conduct. To this end, we periodically review and refine our policies and procedures in order to ensure that they represent the best practices nationally,” Peterson said.

“Our Student Code of Conduct creates a standard by which students are expected to conduct themselves, and violations of this code are separate and distinct from criminal and or civil proceedings, with different procedures and different levels of proof required. As a result, students may be held accountable to both legal authorities for violations of the law, and to Georgia Tech for violations of our Student Code of Conduct.”

Peterson went on to outline the current OSI processes before addressing the working group tasked by the Board of Regents to review Tech’s disciplinary policies and procedures.

“As a result of several recent issues, last October, I requested that Mr. Nels Peterson, who at the time was the chief legal officer and secretary to the Board of Regents, chair a working group to review our policies and procedures. This review was completed on Dec. 15, 2015, and found that in the 95 percent of the cases where the facts were not in dispute, the policies and procedures in place at Georgia Tech were consistent with best practices nationally. They did, however, recommend a number of refinements for the cases where the facts were in dispute,” Peterson said.

“On Dec. 23, 2015, I sent a memorandum to our vice president for student life and vice president for legal affairs and risk management, asking them to address the issues noted in the report and to forward their recommendations to me.”

Peterson then outlined the specific issues the working group identified and the respective changes being implemented to address those concerns.

“One, there is a lack of clarity in the process for the five percent of cases where the parties disagreed about the facts. The revised Code of Conduct will now direct the Office of Student Life to work in consultation with the Office of Legal Affairs to develop consistent operating procedures.

“Two, issues may arise if the pre-charge review involves a factual investigation. The revised Code of Conduct will now limit the pre-charge review to a determination as to whether the facts, as alleged, are sufficient to initiate a conduct hearing.

“Three, the issue of aggregating unrelated cases as a part of a single student conduct panel hearing needs clarification. The revised Code of Conduct will now clarify how the issue of multiple charges against the same respondent should be handled.

“Four, there is currently no mechanism by which the accused can challenge possible bias. The revised Code of Conduct will now provide a mechanism for recourse in this situation.

“Five, there is no appeal process for the case of suspension in abeyance … The revised Code of Conduct eliminates the sanction of suspension in abeyance and the possibility of suspension without appeal to the President.”

The changes are, according to Peterson, already having tangible effects in several of Tech’s ongoing and past cases.

“We have contacted all of the respondents in those cases where the sanction of Suspension in Abeyance is in place and have informed them of their right to appeal,” Peterson said. “Two of those contacted have responded and requested an appeal.”

One of the Suspension in Abeyance cases in which an appeal has been requested is that of Phi Delta Theta, which under the suspension had been collectively banned from participating in Greek Week and other campus events for one year. Because the Phi Delta Theta case and those like it are ongoing and currently under appeal, Peterson did not comment any further on their specificities before concluding his statement.

“At Georgia Tech, we place a premium on developing students as leaders, both during their time with us on campus and after graduation,” Peterson said.

“We are also fully committed to a campus environment that is inclusive and safe for our entire campus community. I want to again thank the Committee for the opportunity to appear before you to discuss this important matter and outline what we are doing to ensure a fair and equitable process for all concerned.”

During his question-and-answer period, Peterson fielded questions from legislators, many of which were focused on the dynamic of state schools taking on criminal cases when law enforcement could be more heavily involved instead.

“Would it not make more sense, in cases of certain behaviors that touch criminal conduct … that the University System not, and purposefully not involve itself in [those investigations] and get professional law enforcement to investigate? I would think this would be a relief to many administrators,” said Representative Rich Golick of Smyrna.

Representative Ehrhart concluded the hearing with a demand for change across the board and an allusion to the financial clout of the House Appropriations Committee: “If you’ve got a bond project, and you don’t protect the students of this state with due process, don’t come looking for money. Period.”

Ehrhart continued to criticize Tech’s disciplinary practices following the hearing.

“[The Jan. 25] hearing was instructive in many ways, and none of them positive for the Office of Student Integrity at Georgia Tech … The elected Representatives of the people of Georgia saw clear evidence of not just lack of due process on the Tech campus, but a complete disregard for even the slightest nod towards such.

“They learned that even when no evidence exists of a guilty party, and I quote Dean Stein, ‘we punish the collective’.  I am not sure which totalitarian regime he culled that from, but it is not the law in Georgia … We learned that guilty until proven innocent is the standard at Tech.”

The Board of Regents announced last year that it was seeking to develop consistent, University System-wide policies for sexual misconduct violations and announced on Jan. 25 the expansion of this development to address other violations. The new policies are expected to be unveiled within the next month.