When I announced that I would be presenting our proposed new rules and procedures, the DSG Senate heaved an understandable collective groan. The group I spoke with was already a select number of people—students who had volunteered and students who had run in hotly contested elections in order to legislate for the student body.
Still, I couldn’t blame them. In a world of endless exciting opportunities and controversies—from doing research with world-class faculty to arguing about the place of greek life on campus—procedures are bland, boring and bureaucratic. As the executive vice president of DSG, my first duty is to oversee these rules and procedures, so I am arguably, at worst, a bureaucratic roadblock to progress and, at best, a giant bore.
Process, however, does matter. Civil rights in the United States are protected through the Constitutional guarantee of due process of law. It is procedural and even technical that police must read a Miranda warning when arresting a suspect, that a judge must rule on the suspect’s continued detention with a certain number of hours and that a taxpayer audited by the IRS has access to multiple levels of appeal.
Yet these procedures and technicalities are inseparable from our most fundamental rights—not to incriminate ourselves, not to be arbitrarily imprisoned, not to have our money taken from us by a scary federal agency without an opportunity to plead our case.
Procedures matter on campus as well. A provision called “Privacy of student rooms and apartments,” listed in the Housing License, guarantees that RAs and staff may not enter rooms except pursuant to one of several enumerated procedures, such as routine inspections with notice, written search authorization from HDRL or emergency entry to secure students’ safety. This regulation ultimately protects students against arbitrary breaches of their privacy, like random searches for alcohol violations that some institutions conduct.
The effect is not primarily to shield wrongdoers from punishment. Instead, this policy protects those who are doing nothing wrong but might otherwise be cast under a wide net of arbitrary or universal suspicion. The policy fosters a campus culture where students feel respected and secure. Above all, it furthers a mutually trusting relationship between students and those in positions of authority. It therefore behooves Duke to ensure that this policy is followed by training RAs accordingly and making it clear that evidence obtained through a violation of policy should not be a basis for disciplining a student.
Interestingly, the 2000-2001 Bulletin of Information and Regulations had a very explicit prohibition on the use of improperly obtained evidence, in addition to a host of other rules and procedures that protected students. Students could request an open hearing and peremptorily challenge panel members. Sanctioning guidelines, at least for cheating and alcohol violations, were transparent. The exact rules for selecting new Undergraduate Judicial Board members were available for all to see and comment on. Above all, the policies themselves were procedurally protected: They could only be amended “on the recommendation of a duly appointed judicial review composed of undergraduates, faculty and deans.”
Unfortunately, while the most recent Duke Community Standard in Practice has many other merits, it has eliminated these elements of transparency and due process.
It is easy to see how these rules could have been removed as unnecessarily legalistic, technical and wordy. Yet they ensured that if found responsible and punished, no student could complain of arbitrariness or bias. They made sanctions consistent, and allowed the community to propose reforms if those sanctions seemed too lenient or too harsh. They guaranteed that the whole community, rather than one administrative office, truly owned the process used to set and enforce the community’s standards. To me, as the representative of Duke students subject to these policies and as a freedom-loving American, something as fundamental as due process is worth a little legalism and bureaucracy.
At a basic level, rules and procedures matter for students, and they should matter for DSG. Over the course of the last several months, my colleagues and I have reformed bylaws governing everything from Young Trustee elections to auditing student groups. Throughout, we’ve bent over backwards to protect everyone’s rights through detailed, transparent and judicially reviewable procedures.
Analogously, over the next few months, I hope to discuss student concerns with the administration and see whether we can restore some of the procedural specificity that Duke students used to enjoy. The intent of doing so is not to question the administration’s motives, nor to harp on empty technicalities, but rather to make sure that students are maximally respected and protected, and that any allegation of unfairness becomes so implausible as to be laughable.
Therefore, I ask the Senate and the student body for patience when so much of DSG’s public meeting time is taken up by procedure. While rarely exciting, due process is at the core of liberty, and especially when advocating for it in the University, we must first practice what we preach.
Nikolai Doytchinov is a Trinity junior and DSG executive vice president. His column is the third installment in a semester-long series of biweekly columns written by members of Duke Student Government. Send Nikolai a message on Twitter @DukeStudentGov.