October 17, 2006

COS Task Force Open Forum Tonight

I'd like to encourage you all to go--6-7 pm Collis 101.

But I'd also like to say something about Michael Herman's op-ed today about the Task Force's recommendations.

My concerns and objections to the content of some of the measures introduced by the Task Force and to a lot of the general feeling about COS I have noted before, but I want to say something particularly addressing the way in which a few of the arguments are couched and about the origin of this Task Force in general.

The Task Force was initiated because of the results of a poll of students who expressed their discontent with COS. It was not convened because evidence was brought forth proving that students were being unfairly convicted or even on evidence that too many students were getting away with plagiarism or sexual abuse or anything else.

In other words, while the Task Force stands firmly behind the idea that proper lines of inquiry and proper standards of evidence are crucial to finding out the truth, the committee's origin is divorced from any kind of real evidence. The Task Force itself is a product of opinion and not fact—the opinion that COS needs to be reformed. I do not think we should be basing recommendations that, if accepted by the College, will change lives on opinion, no matter how widespread, or even the inductive reasoning that if our process does not somewhat mirror the American justice system, then it is unjust and incapable of establishing the truth in all cases.

At the risk of being misunderstood, my point is not that we should not be looking into changing COS, but that we need some more public information about it first, and that an SA poll stating that COS is unfair should not be the sole basis for the creation of a taskforce designed specifically to make recommendations about changing it. The Task Force's document has really nothing to say about the evidentiary truth or falsity of the idea that COS adjudicates unfairly—this is its starting point, a presupposition. I know that they talked to people on both sides of various COS cases and while I realize that revealing too much of those cases could be devastating to the parties involved, I feel that some actual evidence made available, and not just a structural analysis, is necessary before we decide whether or how COS is unfair.

I am not saying that COS is perfect; I am not disputing the possibility that students do get 'Hursted unfairly. I am certainly not asserting that COS catches all the plagiarists and sexual abusers on this campus. I am stating that I would like for the Task Force not to have jumped to recommendations, but to have used its power first to present some clear and convincing evidence to the Dartmouth community that the apparently widespread belief that students are being unfairly disciplined is objectively true.

My other point is that there is an excess of concern in this op-ed with Dartmouth's image—the closing line is "By providing its students with the fairest possible disciplinary system, Dartmouth would take a crucial step toward cementing its place as a leader in higher education."

Let me be blunt and say that, in this case, I don't give a damn whether Dartmouth is a leader in higher education. I want to make sure it's safe. If that means we're a leader, great. If that means we're a most unoriginal follower, fantastic. Being a leader in higher education isn't an argument. It's rhetoric. And I know that Michael Herman shares my overriding concern with safety here, and I do not mean to construe his words in a way that suggests differently. I'm just saying, let's drop this line of argument. It's unnecessary, irrelevant, and immaterial.

Similarly, I find the arguments comparing Dartmouth's system to other systems to be inherently self-selective and to overlook inevitably Dartmouth's differences from the environments of those systems. But they are also based on this concern with Dartmouth's image—the rhetoric says that the important thing is not whether COS works (an evaluation which would depend on evidence) but how well it compares with other systems.

It really doesn't matter if Stanford allows cross-examination; that is not the question. The question is whether it would work well for us. That's a conversation we can have internally, without resorting to comparisons to the American judicial system or to Stanford or Harvard or "our peers," but in communication with the experts on campus and with each other.


  1. Anonymous12:18 PM

    "It's unnecessary, irrelevant, and immaterial. "

    Can I just say this sounds like an Al Sharpton line or something (though it is right)

  2. Can I just say this sounds like an Al Sharpton line

    Yes, you may.