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Conduct unbecoming is focus of judicial-affairs office
Code of Student Conduct enforcer deals with infractions ranging from Internet abuse to overzealous protest. Though cases, involving mostly undergraduates, run into the hundreds annually, formal hearings are rare.

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs

13 November 2002 |

Neal Rajmaira is director of Student Judicial Affairs in the Office of Student Life, where he and his staff handle a variety of matters involving student discipline, ranging from plagiarism and cheating to violations that occur in the course of student protests. Rajmaira, who holds a law degree from Villanova University and a masterís in government administration from the University of Pennsylvania, worked in the Penn student-conduct office for four years before joining its Berkeley counterpart two years ago. He spoke recently with Berkeleyan writer Cathy Cockrell about the campusís student judicial process and his insights into student-conduct issues, based on his six years in the field.

How are student-conduct issues dealt with on the Berkeley campus, and what is the role of your office?
We have jurisdiction over all levels of students ó undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools. We handle matters that involve academic dishonesty: the traditional things that you would expect ó plagiarism, cheating, falsification of research. But we also handle other kinds of student misconduct issues: fraternity matters, protest management, computer-policy violations, all of these different things fall within our purview. We manage all of our cases exactly the same way, in accord with the provisions articulated in the Code of Student Conduct. Thatís the campus document that outlines how a student who becomes involved in the process can expect his or her case to flow.

Is Berkeleyís Code of Student Conduct, and its judicial process, quite similar to the code and process on campuses around the country, or are there significant differences?
A lot of schools donít require offices like ours to handle both the academic and non-academic sides of the house. Ours deals with both. I wouldnít say thatís unusual, but it is not done like that everywhere. Many schools deal with academic violations in the colleges themselves. So the dean of Arts and Letters, letís say, at XYZ University, has someone in her shop who would deal with these kind of things.

Whatís the advantage of a more centralized system?
For me the biggest advantage is having a central clearinghouse for recordkeeping. With a university that has more than 30,000 students, itís quite conceivable that a student would commit an academic violation in a class over in the engineering college, and if the recordkeeping isnít nice and tight, the same student could to the School of Journalism, could go to Haas, could go to the College of Letters & Science, and commit those same violations at all of those places, and nobody would ever know about it. So a big part of what we do is to establish that central recordkeeping for the campus, so that we can track students to ensure that recidivism in academic dishonesty doesnít happen very much ó or if it does, that itís addressed.

What are the most common charges or issues that come up?
Protest management often brings a large number of cases at different points of the year for us to look into and resolve. The Greek system provides us with cases pretty regularly.

How many cases do you get a year, and whom do they primarily involve?
Our case load has been steadily ratcheting up; I think last year we had somewhere in the range of 400 to 500 cases, overwhelmingly involving undergrads. Most of the graduate programs take care of the academic cases themselves. When we get a case that comes out of one of the graduate or professional schools, itís usually something very serious ó something thatís involved or intricate or politically touchy.


Who staffs your office, and who actually hears and decides student-conduct cases?
Traditionally we have a director, two or three conduct officers, and some support staff. Our staff people receive complaints, investigate them, and resolve whether a complaint warrants being charged with violations of the universityís rules. Then, if necessary, we either resolve the case informally with the charged student or student group, or take it to a hearing and represent the universityís interests at that hearing.

The body to whom our conduct officers make their arguments and present their case is the Committee on Student Conduct. Itís a committee composed typically of five members ó who come from the faculty, the undergraduate and graduate student bodies, and the staff of the university. When they agree to serve, they go through a training session with our office. After this training, they staff hearings for discipline violations. The people on the committee serve as the finders of fact, almost as a jury.

This year weíre having more hearings than usual, but generally speaking the committee doesnít convene that much. Itís pretty rare to have hearings.

So you resolve most of the charges informally, before they get to a hearing? The student agrees that ďyes, I did this,Ē and then you work out what the sanction is?
Thatís exactly right.

What kind of sanctions do you impose? Does your office try to design and offer creative sanctions?
We do. The mission of our office is to try and further the educational mission of the university. We donít consider the philosophy that we follow to be punitive in nature. We try to balance learning from your experience and taking responsibility for your actions with some sort of punitive measure, usually, to try to ensure that the interests of the community are upheld. We do employ creative sanctioning, and we do employ students a lot to get out there and perform outreach and education to members of the community that they may belong to.

Could you give an example of a sanction you might impose?
Letís say we have a student athlete who is engaged in some sort of academic dishonesty. And the investigation reveals that a certain subculture of our campus ó athletes, letís say ó are engaged in massive cheating. What we would or could do is use that student to go out and create and implement an academic-integrity outreach program, to reach members of this community, to make them aware of the trouble that they can get into. We think that this is a good way for the student to learn, and itís a good way to get the message out, in a way that our staff alone couldnít.

We do similar things with fraternities. When we have fraternities that have been engaged in hazing violations, weíve had them perform both internal and external workshops on hazing for members of the Greek community. Iím a big believer in peer education and peer counseling.

The question of whether student conduct hearings are closed or open has been in the news lately. What is the policy on that?
The Code of Student Conduct states that disciplinary proceedings ó whether they are for individual students or for student groups ó are closed. If the student or student group elects in writing to have an open hearing, within a designated time period before the hearing, the hearing will be open. However, the hearing authority may close a hearing to ensure that the rights of the participants are maintained, or to maintain order.

hen a hearing is open, is that to the public or to the media, or both?
Both. However, even if a student or student group wants the hearing to be open, the hearing authority can close it either in the interest of maintaining order or to protect the rights of participants involved in the hearing. So the right to an open hearing is not absolute.

What are some of the hot issues nationally concerning student misconduct?
Academic dishonesty is probably one of the most important issues that we deal with.

Is that aggravated by the Internet?
The Internet is making information a lot more accessible to both students and faculty. Therefore, as easy as it is for students to access materials on the Internet and use them improperly in their work, itís just as easy for professors or our staff to find it and identify problems. Plagiarismís an issue that colleges nationwide are concerned with.

Another issue is copyright infringement, in cases where students are able to access movies and music on the Internet. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 is kicking in, and you find the recording industry and the media industry getting a little more aggressive in pursuing the illegal downloading of music and movies. So I think thatís an issue that students need to be made aware of.

Through your work you have a particular window on studentsí lives. Do you have any general observations on why students are landing in your office?
A lot of it is the pressure of certain goals that have been set for them, or that theyíve set themselves ó admission to a professional school, or sometimes itís just getting a better grade. Weíve had students cheat for less than a point on a homework assignment. Students take tremendous risks when they engage in academic dishonesty. I donít know if they all realize the gravity or the depth of that risk when they engage in it. Itís troubling to see the kind of risks that they take.

I think students are more stressed these days than perhaps they may have been in the past. When I was in college, I was stressed ó but not about some of the kinds of things that students disclose to us on a daily basis. I find that troubling as well.

But on the positive side, I also find it really rewarding and challenging to work with such a brilliant group of students. They get better and better each and every year. Itís a real privilege to work with, literally, the best and brightest. Thatís a real blessing for us in Student Judicial Affairs, to have that kind of contact. They keep us on our toes.

 


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