Columns

Asker ’17: Criticism of U. for canceling hearing unwarranted

By
Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, March 10, 2015

In recent days, some criticism of the University for its handling of the case against a Phi Kappa Psi member accused of serving a drink that incapacitated the complainants has been warranted, and some not so much. The criticism launched by people behind the hashtag #MoneyTalksAtBrown, which suggests corruption or financial interest contributed to the cancellation of the hearing for this student, who has a parent on the Corporation, is of the latter kind.

For one thing, The Herald’s March 6 article stated that “none of the documents reviewed by The Herald point to specific instances of preferential treatment as a result of the accused student’s family connections.”

Some hashtaggers claim that the student’s family’s power and resources caused the case to be delayed and unduly influenced the evidence. It is true that the disciplinary proceedings were pushed back, first after an injunction that the accused filed, then once more because initial findings were called into question. Specifically, the urine test originally deemed positive was called into question by an independent expert, a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, who was hired by the accused student, according to the article. If the University had taken this evidence and used that alone to reverse the initial findings, I agree that this might have been grounds to call foul. For it is possible — though doubtful — that the Phi Psi member swayed the expert’s analysis by virtue of hiring him.

But the University acted appropriately. It further delayed the hearing to get another opinion, this time from a University-hired independent expert, director of the division of scientific services at Connecticut’s Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection. It was right to do so as a way to adjudicate between competing evidence analyses prior to a hearing. This third toxicologist reevaluated the urine test and found it to be inconclusive, according to the March 6 article. Because the University hired this toxicologist, we can be reasonably sure the test was impartially analyzed.

Upon reviewing the toxicologist’s reevaluation, the original lab retracted its initial positive finding and has since ceased conducting this kind of test, according to a March 1 community notification. Therefore, it is a good thing that the accused introduced conflicting analysis. It pointed to mistakes that would not have otherwise been caught and would have wrongly influenced the case.

The March 6 Herald article describes how J. Timmons Roberts, a professor informally advising one of the complainants, wrote an email to her on Jan. 23 after speaking with an administrator. Noting that administrators were moving as quickly as they could, Roberts wrote, “It sounds like the number of lawyers involved and the resources of (the accused student) have slowed and complicated this,” according to the article.

But according to the University’s website on student rights and responsibilities in relation to student conduct complaints, accused students in all conduct cases have a right “to be informed of the evidence upon which a charge is based and accorded an opportunity to offer a relevant response.” So the accused student was only exercising his rights by hiring the independent toxicologist from Tufts who subsequently raised questions about the validity of the urine test. Moreover, we know that denying respondents attorneys in serious cases is a bad idea, even if allowing them one significantly slows proceedings. We value accuracy over speed.

In terms of the slow process, then, it is clear that money isn’t talking. Rights are.

In addition to the slow process, the decision not to hear the case has been condemned by hashtaggers. Their thinking can be summed up like this: The inconclusive evidence alone is not reason enough to cancel the hearing, so it necessarily follows that it was dropped because of the student’s Corporation connection. Roberts’ concern in the March 6 article is representative — though I cannot speak to whether he would identify with the hashtaggers — when he expresses apprehension that a hearing not being held “potentially sends a message that some are above being subject to the rules.”

Admittedly, there is something that, at first glance, seems contradictory when we juxtapose the case of Phi Psi as an organization and the case of the individual member. According to the March 1 community notification, despite inconclusive GHB tests, a plethora of other evidence provided sufficient support for the final review of the Phi Psi case to conclude “that the two students consumed alcohol and/or some other drug diminishing their normal functions to a degree that placed them at risk of harm.” This led the University to find the fraternity responsible for, among other things, “placing students at risk of harm.”

Yet the University did not even allow a hearing to take place for the student accused of administering the substance. As The Herald reported March 4, this is because the inconclusive drug tests provided insufficient evidence for the case to proceed. But if abundant evidence apart from the inconclusive tests proved an incapacitating substance was consumed in the first case, why can’t the person within the organization who supposedly served it at least be subject to a hearing?

But the inconclusive GHB tests do not allow the University to distinguish between administering GHB and the mere serving of alcohol at an unregistered event.

Even though the University would likely respond to hashtag criticism with the above arguments, which I think have merit, it needs to be transparent and specific if it wants to mitigate concerns that the case was dropped due to the student’s connections. It needs to tell us what standard was required to proceed with a hearing for the individual, how it was not met and how the procedure was different from the whole fraternity’s case. It needs to inform the public of the differences between the cases, or it will continue to face allegations of inconsistency or even corruption.

Looking past the unsound claims of the hashtag refuted above, some criticism launched in recent days is definitely well founded. The University’s poor choice of labs and its not offering the women another hair test after learning that the urine test — the only piece of evidence considered positive at the time — had become inconclusive are both worthy subjects of criticism. But I am inclined to think that these were genuine mistakes. We should not and cannot reasonably implicate Brown in corruption merely because it made these mistakes and canceled the hearing.

To keep level-headed people from becoming disaffected, the University should explain its rationale and release the facts so that we can discuss the case in light of them and not jump to conclusions.

Nick Asker ’17 can be reached at nicholas_asker@brown.edu.

  • ’17

    Well-written and well-argued. Now go hire some bodyguards before the mob finds you!

  • asdf

    asdf