University of Wisconsin Professor Don Downs Criticizes Misconduct Policy Revisions on ‘Minding the Campus’
October 9, 2008
by Luke Sheahan
Don Downs, University of Wisconsin–Madison professor and President of the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights (CAFAR) at the University of Wisconsin (UW), has an article, "Due Process Fades In Wisconsin," on the Manhattan Institute's Minding the Campus. Downs is critical of the changes approved by the UW System Board of Regents. After explaining the objections regarding the due process concerns already voiced in CAFAR's statement released Monday, Downs offers some insight into the dubious wisdom of the Board of Regents' motives and the broader context of these sorts of reforms.
UW leaders endorse the reforms by pointing out that they would draw the University's procedures closer to those of other campuses. This would be a laudable reason if most other campuses provided meaningful procedural protections for students who face sometimes life-altering sanctions for their misconduct. But legal scholars have shown that most institutions of higher education provide very watered-down protections, usually because they want to give administers substantial discretion and because, as educational institutions, they desire to make hearings more "educational" than "adversarial." (The latter rationale is espoused by the UW Board of Regents.) But no matter how you cut it, hearings over serious charges are not simply "educational" for defendants. To them, the hearings are inherently adversarial and stressful.
For a variety of reasons, many of the political trends in higher education over the course of the last twenty years have led to a watering down of student rights in order to promote preferred moral agendas. Speech codes have proliferated in the name of promoting sensitivity on grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation and the like, as have mandatory student and faculty sessions that brow-beat individuals into conforming to reigning campus orthodoxies. While basic sensitivity is a worthy end, the big question is the means by which it is achieved. Moral bullying and restricting rights is the wrong way to go in a liberal democracy. Some of the reform proposals for UWS 17 appear to be inspired by this kind of political correctness, especially those dealing with sexual harassment/assault and diversity considerations in adjudication.
If we truly conceive of students as young adults, this means that we should bestow upon them the same rights and responsibilities as adults. Historically, the University of Wisconsin has been among the nation's leaders in providing due process protections. But UWS 17's reforms raise serious questions about our commitment to this legacy. We need a vibrant public discussion about where we are heading.