Sexual assault disciplinary policy needs reform

Revamping Dean’s role and increasing transparency would improve and balance disciplinary process.

By Maroon Editorial Board

Over the course of this quarter, the Maroon has published an investigative series on sexual assault at the University of Chicago. The six installments cover the University’s sexual assault policy, the disciplinary process for such incidents, counseling, when victims choose not to report, and the campus climate regarding sexual assault at the University. A recurring theme throughout the series has been the issue of transparency around University procedures, particularly the disciplinary process and the role Deans of Students have within it. The University should make it a top priority to clarify the sexual assault portions of its disciplinary policy and rethink how sexual assault cases are referred to the disciplinary process.

As the Maroon reported in a November 2 installment (“Part II: Sexual Assault Hearing Process at U of C”), students who choose to begin the sexual assault disciplinary process meet with the Dean of Students of the College, or, in the case of graduate students, of her division. After the Dean of Students meets with the accused, the dean has full power to decide if the case will be sent forward through the disciplinary process. As cited in the University’s disciplinary policy, “Based on the inquiry and in consultation with the Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services (or his/her designee), the Dean of Students has the discretion and authority to dismiss the complaint, to resolve the complaint informally with the parties, or to refer the complaint to the Academic Dean with a recommendation to convene an Area Disciplinary Committee.” As reported in a November 20 installment (“Part IV: Sexual Assaults that Don’t Reach Hearings”), students are always encouraged, upon first contact with a Sexual Assault Dean-on-Call or other Campus Security Authority, to seek disciplinary action in cases of sexual assault.

The exact role of the Dean of Students, however, remains ambiguous, and he or she possesses an inordinate amount of power in being able to decide, at personal discretion, whether a complaint should be dealt with in the disciplinary process. The disciplinary policy also states that “mediation and/or informal resolution are not appropriate, even on a voluntary basis, in matters involving allegations of sexual assault.” This passage, part of the sexual assault section of the disciplinary policy, seems to contradict the previously quoted power of the Dean of Students “to resolve the complaint informally with the parties.” This undermines disciplinary policy, as even an allegation of sexual assault precludes the possibility of mediation. As in one student’s case (“Part IV: Sexual Assaults that Don’t Reach Hearings”), if the incident is determined not to be sexual assault, the case is then opened up for the possibility of mediation. Though it is not at all defined in disciplinary policy, mediation most often entails the accused and accuser sitting in the same room discussing the allegation and coming to a resolution between them.

The ambiguity of the definition given for ‘mediation’ and the dean’s ability to decide unilaterally whether cases deserve disciplinary consideration are both flaws that need to be addressed in the University’s disciplinary policy. To resolve the former problem, the policy should explicitly articulate what administrators consider mediation, and precisely when it is allowed. The allowance of mediation should be confined to the few instances in which the disciplinary policy permits it, and never in the case of a sexual assault allegation. For the latter issue, the primary goal should be delegating the decision to more than one person, and preferably to a diverse group of administrators or faculty whose only purpose is to make such decisions and who can do so more objectively. The default process should not hinge on the Dean of Students’s sole discretion, but could, rather, resemble the already extant option of convening an Area Disciplinary Committee to review the complaint.

The University’s sexual assault policy is by no means a failed one, but both anecdote and analysis have exposed its flaws, many of which are rooted in its fundamental lack of transparency. For example, the University annually releases a Clery Report and Daily Crime Logs in compliance with the Clery Act, as well as a voluntarily compiled Violent Crime Report, all of which include information about incidents of sexual assault. The University could consolidate such statistics and release a comprehensive, go-to report for students to consult. Similar efforts to increase transparency, such as clearly defining mediation and reevaluating the Dean of Student’s role in proceedings, could go a long way toward ensuring a more understandable, accessible, and productive sexual assault disciplinary process.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.