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COD Governed By Clear, Fair Policies

Steven R. L. Millman

After reading the August 4th Tech editorial entitled “An Unjust Process?”, especially considering lines like “More frightening than the action against a particular individual is the arbitrary, clandestine, and possibly unjust nature of COD proceedings revealed by this action,” it became evident to me that the editors of The Tech, and probably very many members of the MIT community are extremely unclear as to how the disciplinary process works and why it works the way it does. As one of the two graduate student members of the Institute’s Committee on Discipline (COD), I would like to dispel some misconceptions about the process that seem to be clouding the discussion on the presumed Charles Yoo ’98 disciplinary matter.

The first issue is that of secrecy. Like everyone else on the COD, I am not allowed to confirm or deny anything about a disciplinary case, even that a particular case has been heard. There are very good reasons for this. Imagine, for example, if members were free to talk about disciplinary matters or if a gallery were allowed. A student accused of inappropriate behavior could have his or her personal life picked apart on such a public scale that the fact of accusation might well be worse than any punishment issued by the COD. What would happen to the individual’s reputation even if it were then to turn out the accused had not done anything wrong? For these and other reasons, MIT policy and US Department of Education regulations dictate that MIT officers (including student members of the COD) cannot speak on matters pertaining to matters of student discipline. This is even true when the student (or the student’s lawyer) discloses information about the outcome.

The second issue deals with procedure. The Tech reported that “Clear codes and rules of conduct, not vague, wispy, and changing guidelines, must dictate these grave proceedings which mete out such severe punishments.” I’m not sure which “wispy” guidelines are being referred to, but the “clear codes and rules of conduct” exist and great pains are taken to make certain that they are followed. They are given to every student when he or she enters the Institute in the document “Dealing with Harassment at MIT” in Appendix One. A summary of these procedures are given to both the accuser and the accused when a charge has been filed. There is even a large chart including the proper procedures for the hearing which is placed on an easel each time the COD meets. Please feel free to peruse the policies and procedures of the COD which are available at http://web.mit.edu/committees/cod/.

The third issue revolves around the revocation of a degree after graduation. The COD will only hear cases about incidents that occurred while a person was a student and MIT has a policy which prevents it from conducting its own investigation into a disciplinary matter until a criminal investigation, if any, has been completed. This latter policy helps to prevent MIT from accidentally hindering local and state authorities’ efforts.

For instance, the criminal investigation of Scott Krueger’s death took over one year, after which MIT would have conducted its investigation. By then, some of the students present the night that Krueger died had graduated. When a case is brought forward after a student has graduated, MIT’s disciplinary actions are limited. The only punishments that the COD can level are notation on the transcript, temporary revocation of degree, and permanent revocation of degree.

These decisions are roughly analogous to what the COD would do to a current student where notation on the transcript is akin to probation, temporary revocation to suspension, and permanent revocation to expulsion. If a person’s degree is revoked for a period of time, it is probably because that person would have been suspended had he or she still been a student. It is important to also note that the COD’s decision to expel or revoke a degree is actually a recommendation to the President of MIT who ultimately approves or disapproves the sanction.

The last important issue to think about is the source of the information to which the press, and through it the public, has had access. MIT did not, and cannot, speak about a student disciplinary matter. The only source of information available has been through Charles Yoo and his lawyer, who has been arguing that MIT has used “Star Chamber” tactics.

This argument, as reported in the various news venues to which he has spoken, appears to be based on two things: first, his assertion that he was not allowed to speak or ask questions at the hearing; and second, his assertion that the decision against Yoo was based entirely on bad evidence. With respect to the former, while any student is allowed to bring a faculty member or dean as an advisor to a COD hearing, it is very unusual to allow a lawyer to accompany a student, and special permission from the chair is required. If Burke was, in fact, present, it would have been granted due to unusual circumstances, such as the recognition that what the student said at a COD hearing might be presented as evidence in another court. To my knowledge, Burke has never argued that he could not speak to Yoo during the alleged proceedings, nor has he made the assertion that Yoo could not speak or ask questions.

With respect to the second allegation of bad evidence, decisions of the COD are made in executive committee, meaning that no one but COD members are present. At this stage, the COD is very much like a jury which sequesters itself after the trial in order to make its decision. Burke could not have been present at this point, and therefore would have had no opportunity upon which to arrive at an opinion as to how the COD arrived at any decision.

Please remember as you contemplate the various aspects of these news stories that you are only hearing one side of the story about what might have happened at the COD, and you are hearing it from a lawyer. Please also try to remember that MIT’s “deafening silence” is both a benefit to the students that come before the COD and a requirement of the Department of Education.