A federal jury recently awarded a former student at Sewanee $26,500. It was to compensate him for negligence in an investigation conducted by the university into an accusation of rape by a fellow student. The names of the students were not released. The student originally sued the school for millions but the jury only ordered the school to reimburse the cost of his tuition for the year in which the hearing was conducted.
The story is instructive in at least a couple of ways. First, university disciplinary committees are not set up to hear criminal charges. Our society doesn’t trust people other than lawyers and judges to uphold our constitutional rights or the laws of evidence. When someone at Coca-Cola or some other corporation makes a criminal accusation, especially as serious as rape, against another employee, the executives at Coke don’t set up a committee to determine if someone is guilty. They report it to the local police.
It’s not surprising that the jury determined the university had been careless in its investigation. They have no qualifications to conduct such an investigation.
The second point, made well in The Chronicle’s story, is that this is going to be more of a problem going forward:
Colleges and universities will only see more cases like the one involving Sewanee because of new sexual-assault guidelines the U.S. Department of Education issued in April, said Peter F. Lake, a professor of law at Stetson University. The guidelines lowered the level of proof required during a disciplinary hearing, recommending a move from “clear and convincing” evidence to a “preponderance” of the evidence, a standard that uses a “more likely than not” sort of logic.
The problem, of course, is that the federal government (and parents too) expect colleges to act like parents, monitoring every aspect of students’ lives, creating a safe “atmosphere,” in which students don’t drink too much or say offensive things. But we also expect universities to act as legal systems? These two are not compatible.
Finally, it’s of some interest that while the faculty found this young man guilty, no criminal charges were ever brought against him. I don’t pretend to know whether this means he was guilty or innocent. But it is striking that while the faculty found enough evidence to convict him definitively the local law enforcement couldn’t even justify bringing a case to court. That is quite a different standard for evidence.