Standard of proof not passed in slew of handbook changes

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September 7, 2010

9:18 PM

Proposed changes to the College of William and Mary’s standard of proof will not be incorporated into the 2010-2011 Student Handbook.

In an e-mail sent to students Friday, Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler ’88 Ph.D. ’06 said that proposed changes to the standard of proof used in College disciplinary hearings from “clear and convincing evidence” to “preponderance of the evidence” would not be approved without additional student input.

“Regarding one of the proposals — changing the standard of proof in student conduct cases — student feedback made it clear to us that this change needed to be discussed in more depth with the campus community during the coming year,” Ambler said. “That is the one proposed change not incorporated in the 2010-11 Student Handbook.”

College President Taylor Reveley had previously postponed adoption of the change in favor of further consideration.

Students were invited to provide feedback on each of the proposed changes to the Student Handbook. Ambler said that, while College administrators had hoped to respond to students’ questions individually, the volume of responses — particularly regarding the standard of proof — made that impossible. Instead, an attachment to the e-mail included answers to the most common student questions.

“This second document is an effort to be responsive to the most common questions [and] concerns we have heard,” Ambler said. “You can be assured that each and every submission was read and taken into account as part of this year’s Student Handbook review process.”

According to Ambler, the proposed changes would have moved the College’s standard of proof to be more in-line with national judicial standards.

“I understand that not all will agree that this change is advisable, but we assert that it is the appropriate standard to use in a college setting,” she said. “Before a student is found responsible for a violation, there must be credible evidence that proves, more likely than not, that a violation has occurred. It is worth noting that our system affords many protections that minimize the chances of a wrongful finding.”

Those protections include the right to counsel, a legal advisor and an appeal, among others.

While Ambler’s e-mail presented responses to specific student questions on the proposed handbook changes, Student Assembly Sen. Mike Young ’11 said that the administration’s responses only presented one point of view.

“In a meeting with President Reveley about the handbook changes we … were told that William and Mary would be committed to an open and honest dialogue on the issue of preponderance throughout the school year,” Young said in an e-mail to Ambler. “However, in your e-mail you only justified the preponderance change from an administration perspective, which I feel is inconsistent with this mandate.”

The decision not to adopt the proposed changes also postponed an official conversation between students and the administration. According to Young, this could hamper progress on the issue.

“It is unfair to the student body to only be told the point of view of one of the participants in the debate, when critics, who have very real and legitimate concerns are unable to respond on equal terms,” he said. “We all need to seek a solution to these problems where an open discussion on the positives and negatives can take place, so all voices can be heard and weighed equally.”

Ambler responded to Young’s e-mail by saying that College administrators support having a campus dialogue, but were seeking SA input on how to establish it.

“President Reveley and I are indeed committed to an open and honest dialogue this year regarding the proposal to change the standard of proof for student conduct cases,” Ambler said in an e-mail to Young. “That is precisely the reason that particular change was not included in the 2010-11 handbook. As you, Imad [Matini ’11], and I discussed when we met in my office on August 12, I am hoping for the Student Assembly’s help and recommendations on how we can best involve the broader student community in that dialogue. When [SA president] Chrissy Scott [’11] and I got together several weeks later for the first of our semi-monthly meetings, I again encouraged the Student Assembly’s assistance in this important process. Whether in a town-hall meeting format, panel discussions, or some other forum, I look forward to helping the community examine the proposal from multiple viewpoints.”

Ambler also said that the stated responses to student inquiries were not meant to present only one side of debate on the changes.

“The attachment in my email to students last Friday was never intended to explicate the varying perspectives on the preponderance standard — rather, as I explained in the message, it was my general, personal response to the most common questions [and] concerns I received from students during the feedback period this summer,” she said. “I do hope that all interested parties will speak openly and listen thoughtfully as we carry on a targeted conversation in the coming months.”

However, Young said that recent votes in the SA supported the establishment of a campus dialogue. One particular bill could change the way handbook changes are proposed and implemented in the future.

“Last Tuesday, the senate passed unanimously a bill that requests from now on that handbook changes be presented to the student body during the school year, and that students be given two weeks to respond,” Young said. “This is consistent with the self determination mandate that the college has embraced, and with the idea that there should be input from all aspects of our campus community before changes, both major and minor, are approved. This dialogue is important, and needs to take place when all the necessary participants are present; July 6 is not that time.”

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