2007-09-17 • Volume 2 • Issue 1

Students’ Rights Under Threat from Code of Conduct

The Rice administration and those who work under its instruction have gained the reputation among students of having a laid-back attitude towards underage drinking. It’s true – there is a generally relaxed atmosphere at most on-campus parties and events. Rice University Police Department officers sometimes attend, but are not seen as invasive. This is how it seems to the vast majority of students at Rice, even to those that party and drink often. What we don’t see is more sinister: hidden from the public gossip are occasions when RUPD and the administration decide to enforce much harsher guidelines for student behavior. These private proceedings represent a grave threat to our rights as students, as recognized by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a national organization that has given Rice’s policies a “Red Light” rating.

The Rice Alcohol Policy, which accompanies the Code of Conduct, is a long and poorly written document. Behind the scenes, students spend weeks conforming to red-tape rules and regulations for evening events. Last spring, a popular party at Lovett College (Casino Night) was postponed for over a month because the right forms had not been filed sufficiently in advance. The decorations sat outside the college and costumes languished in closets for a large part of the semester. Even worse, every once in a while, a party will end early with a team of cops lining up every attendee for questioning and possible ticketing. A party at Sid Richardson College last February was broken up in this way, and it was well over an hour before many sober students were released from police custody. The intention is to target students and events that are out of hand, and have become unsafe (“to themselves or others”) but often, the result is a seemingly arbitrary and malicious application of the rules.

We can all relate to alcohol transgressions. Most of us have put down a drink and scurried out of a party at the sight of RUPD once or twice in our Rice careers. Sometimes, RUPD is not the final word, and the violations are passed onto higher authorities within Rice’s administration. An agreement signed by all students during O-Week is usually used in these non-standard situations. Students skim the Student Code of Conduct hastily on their second day at a school that seems like a summer camp – full of friendly faces and no hint of the misbehavior to come. Most students do not even remember signing it, let alone the contents therein. They hear information about the rules that seem closer to “I’m ok, you’re ok” than the harsh rules that could be applied to them should they appear in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This is a side to the judicial system that students are sheltered from, often exacerbated by voluntary secrecy or the rule prohibiting students from speaking publicly. FIRE particularly emphasizes problems with our Sexual Harrassment Policy, which falls under this category. Although simple alcohol infractions go before a panel of students, there is a requirement for private matters to be resolved solely by the action of the Assistant Dean, Don Ostdiek. Private cases can include anything from sexual harassment to public intoxication.

Dean Ostdiek processes the most serious discipline matters while simultaneously teaching several classes and directing the Policy Studies Program. However, he has considerable powers to aid him. According to the document you signed as a contract with Rice and continue to confirm each semester before registration, you cannot have a lawyer in discussions with him (or the University Court, who deals with less sensitive cases). If he chooses, a case can become private and he does not have to consider the opinions of others before his decision. And if the matter does not satisfy all parties, he makes the final decision on any appeals.

In extreme cases, if he decides a student is not suitable for Rice, he can expel the student without public explanation or recourse for the student. According to the document that guides his decisions, he then can reverse appeal decisions made by the Dean of Undergraduates, Robin Forman.

Highlighting these rules shows how incredibly important it is to consider the character and conscientiousness of a person who holds these powers. The issue, of course, didn’t start with our current Assistant Dean or Dean of Undergraduates. This document has been in place for generations. Long ago, when Rice culture was more tight-knit and students were legally allowed to drink at 18, judicial proceedings did not affect the average student. This document was written at a time when the responsibilities of punitive measures could be left to one man, and when less attention was paid to the wording of rules relating to alcohol.

Now we find ourselves attending a school where the atmosphere suggests that one can feel comfortable drinking in public, in the presence of authority figures, while an omnipotent rule structure dictates that two incidents of alcohol possession (holding a cup) can result in expulsion. None of the language specifically describes on-campus events, so off-campus parties are now within the jurisdiction of RUPD. And even if everyone is over 21 and no one gets into a car, having more than one keg makes your party subject to the same red tape as Night of Decadence. Thus merely choosing to enforce the Student Code of Conduct to the letter could get rid of more than half of the student population.

Other universities have confronted similar problems, and there are organizations set up to encourage students to be aware of their rights. FIRE recommends the creation of a Student Bill of Rights to counterbalance the powers of the administration. This should be presented by the Student Association at Rice and voted on by all students to be considered official. Unfortunately, the rules conform to the laws so we cannot expect the rules to change. But what we can promote is greater awareness of these 13 pages of legal terminology that we all must follow.

The administration has begun asking students to acknowledge the rules every semester. Another step in the right direction would be a more explicit and practically worded information session during O-Week, and a short summary of the real implications of the Code of Conduct provided for students before they have accepted their place at the university.

O-Week 2007 at Hanszen college, for instance, should not feature a police officer telling freshmen during the short Judicial Affairs orientation: “So you’re going to be out there and you’re going to taste something and it’s going to taste real slick. Then you’re going to drink a pint of it, and next thing you know you’ll either feel so sick you’ll want to die or you will die.” What about the reality? “You’re going to taste something and it’s gonna taste real slick, and then next thing you know a screaming police officer will be shining a flashlight in your eyes and interrogating you. And for the rest of your time at Rice, your every move will be watched by the university, and your record will be damaged.” Perhaps with the planned growth of the university, the document will be changed to relieve some of the pressure on the head of the Judicial Council and fewer students will find themselves locked into a disciplinary process that cannot, by its nature, protect their rights.

Something needs to be done. RUPD and the Judicial Council are using a document that seems to have conventionally strict regulations, comparable to those enforced by the United States. But much like the laws of the United States, these aggressive rules give those in power free reign to apply them arbitrarily. Not every underage drinker can be punished. A place at a university, and being in good judicial standing at the university, is a very serious matter for many students at Rice. We put each one of them at the mercy of one fallible person when we allow a document like the Code of Conduct to exist untamed.

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