What is the purpose of a student government, acting in the name of a body of students, if it is unwilling to stand up for its students?
We have been lucky in recent years. Our representatives in the Missouri Students Association Senate have been responsible, accountable, progressive and fair. They have worked hard to see a bright future for this university and its students. They have implemented creative and effective programs to improve quality of life here. For that, they deserve our thanks. But we occasionally see actions from the members of Senate that worry us. These actions, if allowed to become commonplace, could reduce the power and influence of our student government, and with it, the power and influence of us students over this institution.
The Student Conduct Committee is responsible for making decisions in cases where MU students allegedly violated university policy. It is made up of 10 students (selected from MSA and the Graduate Professional Council by the chancellor) and 15 faculty (selected by the Board of Curators). There is a formal process in which the committee reviews a case and then rules on it. Punishments for violations can include anything up to expulsion from the university, and only the chancellor can overturn the decisions of the committee.
While this committee has received criticism in recent weeks for requiring a lesser burden of proof to convict students than a court of law, we don’t find fault in this. The university is not the same as a government, and as such, it may require stricter laws and expectations. Where we find fault in this committee and the policies that created it is the flagrant conflict of interest the senior coordinator of the Office of Student Conduct holds with the committee. The coordinator’s position, currently filled by Donell Young, is responsible for both training committee members — in charge of who teaches them about university policy and what is covered — and responsible for compiling the evidence for cases before the committee.
This is a glaringly obvious red flag. Committee members’ entire perspective towards student conduct — the specific conditions that constitute violations, any special descriptive words that may “pinpoint” misconduct, and so on — is taught to them by the same person who prepares the evidence against the accused. The coordinator knows what committee members are looking for. He or she has the potential to frame cases in a certain way he or she knows will appeal to them and with this power can influence them in a way that is clearly unfair to those accused of misconduct.
We do feel the need to praise Young, the current coordinator. He has proven to us he is a fair and involved leader who is open to changing the system and recognizing its flaws. However, we cannot extend this to any future occupants of his position; this misbalance of power has the potential to be easily abused by someone less principled than Young. Therefore, it is clear to us the system must be changed. The senior coordinator may be in charge of training the committee or in charge of presenting evidence, but must no longer be allowed to do both.
With this conviction, several high-ranking MSA senators introduced a bill Tuesday spurning the Student Conduct Committee’s setup and recommending a committee be set up to review it. In our opinion, this is the right choice and seemed an obvious move for Senate to take. But a plurality of senators rejected the bill, citing that it was too strongly worded and that it carried the risk of offending members of the committee, as well as the MU administration. This is a serious problem. We are worried that, if allowed to become commonplace, such aversion to controversy and conflict in MSA will degrade its sway with university officials. It could possibly reverse some of the recent progress the association has made.
We are at a time when our university’s administration continues to grow more and more distant from its students, refusing to reform or even discuss many flaws throughout its structure and operations. It is disheartening to watch our representatives hold back from working toward a better and more just university for fear of a fight — for fear that in searching for an improved process, a fairer shade of sunlight, they may offend someone or cause some conflict. We have a message for those MSA senators who allowed themselves to shy away from progress to keep the supposed “favor” of the MU administration and those appointed by it: Stand back up. Do not allow this to become a pattern. You represent 30,000-odd people, some of whom may one day find themselves in front of the Student Conduct Committee. We want, and we know you want, these students to be given the fairest chance possible to have their actions held up against our university’s policies and examined by a committee free of any external influence or conflict of interest. So act with them in mind. Stand on their side. It’s the honorable thing to do. When you see flaws in the system, kick and struggle and raise hell until they are fixed. There may be hurt feelings. There may be offended parties. But you, MSA senators, are there to protect us, the students of this university, from any injustice our administration may raise upon us. It’s essential you uphold this promise.