Tag Archives: Amherst

An imperfect Way to Fight Unfair Sexual Accusations

Too often on campus, the best chance for a wrongfully accused student to achieve justice involves a lawsuit after the campus tribunal has done its worst. A system that uses the lowest standard of proof, allows accusers to appeal not-guilty findings, lacks mechanisms for mandatory discovery of exculpatory evidence, denies meaningful (or any) representation by counsel, and prohibits direct cross-examination is almost, by definition, unjust.

As FIRE’s Samantha Harris has long observed, courts are an imperfect vehicle to protect campus due process as a whole; the nature of due process lawsuits makes it difficult for courts to do anything more than address the facts of a single case. (The Brandeis decision comes closest to a judicial declaration that a university’s sexual assault process violated the Constitution.) Moreover, a lawsuit can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars—well beyond the means of many middle-class or poor families.

It is, therefore, nothing short of preposterous to suggest that the myriad due process lawsuits illustrate the “powerful legal incentives” for colleges to handle sexual assault complaints “fairly.” Yet this was the claim of one prominent defender of the Obama administration’s efforts to weaken campus due process—my own institution’s president, Michelle Anderson. She added that “campuses are responding—as they must—when accused students prevail.” The extensively footnoted article contained no footnote for this assertion.

When Innocence Isn’t Enough

Anderson’s words would be cold comfort to accused students from Miami (Ohio), Case Western, or the University of California-San Diego. In the Miami case, Judge Michael Barrett noted that the accused student had “alleged facts which cast doubt on the accuracy of the outcome.” Indeed, the “discrepancy between [the accuser’s] written statement—‘I never said no’—and the finding that [the accuser] asked [the accused student] to stop casts serious doubt on the accuracy of the outcome of the Administrative Hearing [emphasis added].” Yet Judge Barrett concluded that 6th Circuit precedent prevented him from rectifying the injustice.

In a 2015 case at Case Western, Judge Christopher Boyko concluded that the accused student had made “a plausible claim that [he] was innocent of the charges levied against him and that CWRU wrongly found that [he] committed the offense.” Case Western didn’t give the accused student access to the full case file. The panel refused to ask some of the questions he deemed critical to his defense, and the chairman of the panel treated him with hostility.

The university denied his appeal—after allowing the appeals officer to consider an anonymous letter, to which he was never given access, to be added to his file. Despite noting that this treatment left a “plausible inference that CWRU’s disciplinary hearings were procedurally flawed,” Boyko sided with the university, citing relevant 6th Circuit precedent. The likely innocent student—found guilty after a flawed procedure—was out of luck.

This is, of course, the same circuit at which Judge Martha Daughtrey mused at how students accused of sexual assault are entitled to no more due process than a soldier facing a military board of inquiry. Daughtrey isn’t alone in her judicial indifference of basic fairness. The highest-profile example came in a 2016 appellate decision from California, where a three-judge panel restored the discipline against an accused student at UC-San Diego. The judges reached that conclusion even after one of them publicly compared the UCSD process to a kangaroo court.

Settlements

For those accused students filing outside of the 6th Circuit (or, in the aftermath of the UCSD decision, in California state court), success depends less on the merits of their case than on the judge to whom the case was assigned. For the public, however, even an unsuccessful lawsuit can provide critical insight into the otherwise secret world of campus due process.

Yet in two important respects, the interests of litigants and of the public are at odds. First, and quite understandably, wrongfully accused students want to end the process as soon as possible. In almost all cases, their primary goal is an expungement of their record, given the life-altering consequences of a wrongful finding of sexual assault. The public, by contrast, has an interest in a process lengthy enough to require the university to turn over internal documents relating to its disciplinary process—and to get university disciplinarians under oath.

These two interests most obviously come into conflict in settlement discussions. With the exception of Brown (and, oddly, Brandeis), most colleges and universities have entered into settlement discussions shortly after losing a motion to dismiss. The two most recent settlements—both troubling cases profiled by Ashe Schow—came at Lynn University in Florida and Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. In a twist, both settlements came shortly after court rulings requiring some degree of participation in the lawsuit by the accuser, setting up the possibility of cross-examination that the schools had gone out of their way to prevent.

It’s easy to see why the accused students settled; otherwise, their lives would have been on hold indefinitely. But the settlements also ensured that the public will learn no more about these deeply disturbing cases.

Secrecy

The interests of litigants and the public also are in opposition with regards to publicity. The first round of litigation after the Dear Colleague letter—cases at Xavier, St. Joe’s, Miami (Ohio), and Vassar—all featured students suing in their own names. Now, virtually all suits are filed under “John Doe.”

For reasons recently explained by Judge Philip Simon (in a case at Notre Dame), this shift is in the best interests of justice: the marginal benefits to the public knowing litigants’ identity are overcome by the litigants’ need for privacy. But the shift nonetheless represents a tradeoff and prevents those who cover the cases from getting a better sense of the personalities involved.

The far more troubling new development involves the sealing of all or much of the case file. Such efforts initially came mostly from accusers—in cases at Georgia Tech, St. Thomas, and (involving her subpoena) Amherst. But in two recent cases—James Madison and Notre Dameaccused students have entered into agreements with their universities to file material, including the transcript of the disciplinary hearing, under seal.

It’s understandable why an accused student would want to take such a course—even if innocent, the material in the campus process can be personally embarrassing. And not all of material is permanently shielded from the public—judges can cite from it in their opinions, as the two judges did in the critical due process victories at JMU and Notre Dame. But one reason why I was able to write so extensively about Amherst is that the accused student’s lawyer, Max Stern, placed all aspects of the disciplinary file, including the transcript, into the record, fully open at PACER.

In contrast to the “John Doe” issue, judges should push back on closing non-redacted material from public view. The public has a right—indeed, an obligation—to learn as much as they can about the unfairness of the campus disciplinary process. And as things stand now, due process lawsuits represent the only way for the public to achieve an unvarnished view.

To date, the Trump administration has made no efforts to push back any of Obama’s anti-due process policies. And it’s not at all apparent that, even if they did so, colleges would do much to restore a sense of fairness. So litigation—despite its clear limits—will remain the best avenue for both justice and transparency.

Amherst: No Pretense of Fairness

Amherst is being sued –and rightly so–in one of the most egregious of the many campus sex cases. In brief, this is what happened.

  • After heavy drinking, two Amherst students had sex.
  • The male involved was the boyfriend of the female’s roommate. Her friends made nasty comments about her or abandoned her for cheating on her roommate.
  • Months later, joining a group of victim’s rights advocates, the accusing student (AS) concluded that the drunken sexual encounter had been rape and brought charges.
  • In a  lightning-fast investigation,  Amherst  did not discover that AS had sent two  crucial text messages to fellow students: one admitting she had seduced the male in question, regretted it and worried that the male had been  too drunk to lie about it; the other inviting a second male to her room for sex immediately after the alleged rape.
  • In a kangaroo court hearing (no lawyer, no discovery no direct cross-examination), the male was found culpable and expelled.
  • Having learned about the exculpatory emails, Amherst refused to re-open the case, and blamed the accused male.

In a defiant response to a lawsuit filed by the accused student, Amherst claimed that the process worked as it should have in this case. Or if it didn’t, it was the accuser’s roommate’s fault—he should have found out about the text messages and forwarded them before the investigator’s investigation ended. Or if it wasn’t the accuser’s fault, it was the accused student’s own fault for (in a hearing with no lawyer) not developing clever supplemental cross-examination questions about the text messages. But Amherst, according to Amherst, did everything right, according to both college policy and federal law, producing a hearing “conducted with fundamental fairness, in good faith.”

Amherst: The Process Worked

Amherst’s response comes in three levels. First, it suggests that the college did everything right: the investigation worked as it should, even though the investigator did almost all of her campus interviews in just one day; and the panel made the correct judgment, even as the college denied the accused student any right to meaningful cross-examination or legal representation. After all, AS claimed (more than a year after the fact) that at some point she had withdrawn consent, and the accused student was too drunk to recall the incident.

It’s possible, as Reason’s Robby Soave has noted, that despite this damning contextual evidence, AS’s months-after-the-fact story about nonconsensual sex is correct. But in a case that relied solely on AS’s credibility, in which AS denied to Amherst’s investigator that she had relevant text messages, such material effectively destroys her claim—as Soave also, correctly, observed.

Desperately Defending the Accuser

In its filing, Amherst tries to rehabilitate AS in two ways. First, the college suggests that—even if they had been produced by the school—the text messages would have had “no bearing” on the case, since they were simply discussions about irrelevant aspects of AS’s sex life. But the intercourse is almost certainly relevant (since AS misrepresented to the panel and the investigator why the male student came to her room), and the messages contain several items discussing her intercourse with the accused, not with the second male.

Second, Amherst portrays AS as courageously forthcoming, and therefore wholly credible. It denies that she changed any significant aspect of her story—though even the school’s own investigator couldn’t “say it was clear to me” when AS actually claimed that she withdrew consent. It’s also true, the college’s outside attorneys concede, that AS told the school’s investigator that she didn’t have relevant text messages about the incident. But that answer was truthful, according to Amherst, because AS could have understood that the investigator was only asking her “whether she had communicated or recorded in writing that the Incident had been ‘non-consensual,’ which she did not.”

In other words, Amherst has implied that its investigator was only interested in obtaining from AS contemporaneous documentation that would confirm, rather than undermine, AS’s story. And this is how the college’s system was supposed to work? On this point, Amherst had two unpalatable options: (1) concede that AS lied to the investigator, and therefore is of dubious credibility, or (2) hint that its investigator wasn’t interested in obtaining exculpatory information. I suppose, given those two options, and given the ideological climate at the college, the lawyers had little choice but to implicitly rebuke the investigator.

Amherst’s Fallback Position: Blame Its Students

In a federal judiciary that includes such opponents of campus due process as Ronnie Abrams (Vassar case) and Jesse Furman (Columbia case), perhaps this argument might carry the day. But even Amherst seems doubtful. And so the school offers a second line of defense–to the extent the result was unjust and the school failed to consider exculpatory evidence, it was because Amherst students (either AS’s roommate, or the accused student himself) failed to do their jobs.

On this point, Amherst begins with AS’s roommate, the former girlfriend of the accused. (The roommate seems to me to have been badly treated by all parties in this case—including, now, Amherst.) While the college goes out of its way to defend the unreliable AS, its outside counsel choose to cast aspersions on the roommate—one of Amherst’s own students—by suggesting that she wasn’t entirely forthcoming about the existence of the text messages in her one and only interview with the investigator. Why? Because the roommate answered, “I don’t think so” to the following question from the investigator: “Is there anything else I haven’t asked you about that you think would be important for me to know?”

In other words: the roommate—a college student, not represented by counsel—was supposed to: (1) assume that AS hadn’t turned over clearly relevant messages (and understand why they were relevant); (2) recognize that the text messages (for which she was neither a sender nor a recipient) represented “anything else” in the investigator’s question; and (3) not wonder why this supposedly experienced investigator wouldn’t simply ask about text messages. Moreover, if the investigator had taken a more professional route—that is, scheduling follow-up meetings with relevant witnesses rather than interviewing all the witnesses in the case in a one-day whirlwind through campus—she might have realized the importance of the text messages and asked about them in a follow-up interview with the roommate.

Nonetheless, AS made a mistake. As even Amherst admits that AS “did not provide text messages to Attorney Kurker [the investigator],” she referenced them indirectly in the hearing: “I texted a friend to come over to talk to me and spend the night.” Amherst’s attorneys now argue that this sentence of testimony, buried within a longer discussion of what AS did after the alleged attack, shows the accused student had all the chances he needed. Although he “had the opportunity to do so,” Amherst’s outside counsel maintains, “he never asked [AS] to identify ‘the friend’ whom [AS] texted.”

In other words: the accused student—representing himself in a proceeding whose outcome would alter the rest of his life—was supposed to: (1) have had a clear enough understanding of the case to have recognized that AS made a key admission in her testimony; (2) have composed (in writing) a follow-up set of questions on the text messages as AS’s testimony was occurring; and (3) have submitted these questions to the panel chair and hope that the chair (who wasn’t required to do so) asked them of AS. And since the accused student failed at playing Perry Mason, Amherst now contends he’s out of luck.

Amherst and Its Officials

While the accused student couldn’t have a lawyer with him, he did have an Amherst-approved “advocate,” Torin Moore, who had come to Amherst after obtaining a graduate degree in social justice education from UMass. What was Moore doing as AS made her potentially damning admission? Amherst doesn’t even bother to defend his performance during the hearing. And what about the panelists? The college obliquely concedes their failures: AS “was not asked that question [about the text messages] by anyone else.” Why were they disinterested in this relevant information? Amherst doesn’t say.

Finally, a striking element of the original complaint was a realistic portrayal of the deeply unhealthy campus climate at Amherst on issues of due process—a task that the accused student’s attorneys, Max Stern and Hillary Lehmann, accomplished by liberally quoting from Amherst officials’ statements and documents. The Amherst filing ineffectively tries to rebut this portrayal by accusing Stern and Lehmann of producing a complaint that “mischaracterizes and selectively quotes out of context” Amherst materials. Yet in 39 pages, the college can’t identify a single specific mischaracterization.

The Campus Assault on American History

As a professional historian at Hamilton College, I teach my students that the United States was founded on the principles of limited government, voluntary exchange, respect for private property, and civil freedom.  Does any sane parent believe that more than a tiny fraction of students graduate from college these days with a deep and abiding appreciation of the worth of these principles? 

For Doubting Thomases, look no further than the eleven elite liberal arts colleges that comprise the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), which includes Amherst, Williams, Trinity, and Wesleyan.   Not one of these eleven colleges requires undergraduates to take a single course in American history.  Even worse, a substantial majority of these eleven elite colleges do not even require that students majoring in history take any American history courses. And none of the eleven history departments requires a two-semester American history sequence for its majors.

Non-Western history, however, has a privileged status in a majority of the departments.  Amherst requires of history majors that they take only “one course each in at least three different geographic areas.” The United States is but one of six geographic areas from which students can choose.  Bowdoin College’s history department offers eight fields of study.   Four “non-Euro/U.S. courses” are required, but not one US history course. In 2007, one-third of all history majors at my college, Hamilton, were graduated without one course in American history. 

As the American historians in my department battled to remedy this disgrace, the majority voted a minor concession: Starting with the class of 2012, majors must take one course in US history, although the non-Western requirement would remain: “Three courses must focus upon areas outside of Europe and the United States.” The downgrading of American history continues.

Plagiarism and Feelings at Amherst

Carleen Basler, a professor at Amherst who said she struggled with her writing, resigned after she was caught plagiarizing and the Amherst Student did a good job covering the story. So far, so good. But Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit notices a few odd paragraphs in the paper’s report:

Since some believe that Basler did not ask for help because she didn’t feel that Amherst was a safe and understanding place, both faculty and students brought to the forefront the issue of creating a better environment in which people feel more comfortable coming forward with their academic problems.“I think the important part of it, I guess, is that I feel that there’s a lot that we can learn about how to support vulnerabilities and deficits,” Professor Karen Sánchez-Eppler said. “How do we as an institution make it a place where when people feel that they’re getting stuck — and I think that this is true for our students as well as our faculty — that when they’re feeling stuck, they can say ‘I’m stuck, help me,’ and not try to cover it up? That’s the kind of soul-searching that we as an institution need to do.”

Reynolds writes: “So, wait, academic fraud — apparently going all the way back to the dissertation — is somehow because the institution isn’t a “safe and understanding place?” With all the people looking for academic jobs, what could account for this attitude? Well, she teaches White Identity. Plus: ‘Coming from a Mexican-American background, she was particularly interested in the diversity of the student body.’ Imagine that she was a white male Republican, instead of a probable affirmative-action diversity-studies hire. Same response to plagiarism?

Do Female Students Need ‘Stereotype Inoculation’?

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Are you a female STEM student (or wannabe STEM student) suffering from a stereotype infection? Then, according to new research recently described in Inside Higher Ed (“Inoculation Against Stereotype”), you should take a course from a female instructor to inoculate yourself.

The research, based on a study at U Mass Amherst by Nilanjana Dasgupta, associate professor of psychology  and some graduate students there,
found notable benefits for female students (and for male students as well, though to a lesser degree) to being taught by women — and may point to strategies that would keep more women in STEM fields. The idea behind the research is that certain strategies “inoculate” female students against the sense that they don’t belong or are not likely to succeed in math and science courses.
 
…. Dasgupta said that the evidence suggests that women who are exposed to women doing math and science successfully end up with “stereotype inoculation” in which they gain confidence. The obvious solution from the new research — which Dasgupta said wasn’t realistic — would be to have only women teach introductory STEM courses.

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How to Fight for Free Speech on Our ‘Sensitive’ Campuses

About fifty undergraduates from around the country gathered outside of Philadelphia, on the campus of Bryn Mawr College, between July 15 and 17th, to discuss the struggle for free speech on American campuses. The event was the third annual Campus Freedom Network (CFN) conference organized by FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Teaching as I do at the University of Massachusetts flagship campus in Amherst, affectionately known by some as the People’s Republic of Amherst, I considered it a rare treat to encounter in one place so many impassioned and curious young people eager to defend their First Amendment rights against the encroachment of overzealous college administrators and others. Horror stories were recounted (about which more anon), but laughter, outrage, smart comebacks, and strategizing were in ample supply.
Since FIRE’s founding in 1999 by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, co-authors of the 1998 book The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses, the non-partisan non-profit organization has battled speech codes and other assaults on First Amendment rights on campuses from coast to coast. More interested in suasion than in litigation (which, when necessary, is done by FIRE’s many lawyer friends and allies), FIRE is by now a well-established outfit with headquarters in Philadelphia, a satellite office in Manhattan, and a total staff of 17. It has been remarkably successful in bringing sunlight and good sense to blinkered administrators, as can readily be attested by a glance at its website, which archives the organization’s activities, including its blog, The Torch, its constantly growing list of schools whose speech codes and policies FIRE has rigorously analyzed and classified, and offers free downloads of its five short “Guides to Student Rights on Campus” — each book focusing on one crucial area: free speech, religious freedom, due process, student fees, and first-year orientation/thought reform efforts on campus

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