The sit-in in front of the Bowman Foster Ashe building in April is but a distant memory to most students. Yet those who took part in the demonstration are still feeling its consequences.
The sit-in, organized largely by members of Students Toward a New Democracy (STAND), was part of a series of activities the student group led last semester that endorsed service workers’ vote to form a union.
Shortly after the protest, 18 students received notices of preliminary disciplinary hearings from the university. The disciplinary process extended into the summer, when most of the students were charged with disorderly conduct and failure to comply with university orders, according to Jacob Coker-Dukowitz, one of the leaders of STAND.
During the protest, students sat in front of the locked doors of Ashe, some wearing tape symbolically over their mouths, and some holding signs.
Access to the building was restricted, with people entering through the back door and campus tours, which normally leave from the Office of Admission located inside the building, being rerouted to the Toppel Career Center.
After their hearings, most of the students struck plea deals and were sentenced to strict disciplinary probation for two or three semesters, to complete 10 to 60 hours of community service and to write a 500-word reflective essay on their actions.
Although at first the students were facing major disciplinary violations, they were later reduced to university (or minor) violations, they said. This meant that students could not have counsel present at their hearings. It also meant they could not face suspension or expulsion in sentencing.
According to the Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook, a panel that comprises three students and an adviser carries out disciplinary hearings for university violations during the academic year. In other times, like summers and exam periods, a Student Affairs dean carries out the hearings.
“They wanted to wait until there were no students and no media around,” said Coker-Dukowitz, who stayed in Miami over the summer to finish incomplete courses from last semester, of the summer hearings. “That’s what actually concerned us the most.”
Gregory R. Singleton, associate dean and director of judicial affairs, said the university does not comment on individual student disciplinary issues.
Coker-Dukowitz said he was also originally sanctioned with not being able to live in University Village. However, he appealed this part of his sentence, and former Dean of Students William Sandler granted the appeal before retiring during the summer.
The UM senior said he took the disciplinary consequences in stride.
“To me, they were such a side issue,” Coker-Dukowitz said, adding that he was more focused on continuing to work to form a workers’ union.
Students like Katharine Westaway, however, said they hope to change the disciplinary system that they feel has “loopholes” that favor the university.
The 30-year-old graduate English student, who is not a member of STAND but participated in the sit-in, said she would use the essay she was sentenced to write to request that changes be made in the Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook, which explains the university’s disciplinary policies.
“There’s no sense of fairness or justice in the [university]court system,” Westaway said. “I wouldn’t want this to happen to another student.”
Because she was traveling over the summer and the university did not grant her appeal to postpone her case until the fall, Westaway’s hearing was held over the phone. This made it difficult for her to call upon witnesses that could have testified for her had the hearing been held in person with classes in session, she said.
Westaway added that she felt there was a conflict of interest in her case, because Assistant Dean James B. Fatzinger, who was an adjudicator in her hearing (along with Singleton) took photos of her in the sit-in that were used against her as evidence.
“The judge shouldn’t also collect the evidence,” she said.
According to the Handbook, a Student Affairs dean involved in a case can have a variety of responsibilities, which may include investigating, filing charges, presenting the university’s case and conducting hearings.
As a result of the summer hearings, Westaway said she expects that student activists will be less vocal on campus, since they will be on probation and facing expulsion if new disciplinary charges are brought against them.
Citing some of the same points as Westaway, Brian Lemmerman, another student sentenced over the summer, filed a lawsuit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court against the university earlier this month.
According to media reports, in the breach-of-contract lawsuit, the third-year architecture student claims that the university’s disciplinary procedures did not take into account conflicts of interest in the case.
These conflicts include an adjudicator taking photos as evidence and the campus police playing a role in surveillance of the students.
Jane E. Connolly, a Spanish professor in the department of foreign languages and literatures and faculty adviser for STAND, said she was disappointed by the disciplinary procedures.
“I don’t think that the student who went to hearings had real due process,” Connolly said. “In speaking to other faculty, regardless of what they felt about the strike, they unanimously feel this was an unfair process and is not what we expect at a university.”
Connolly said the hearings could have been held in person shortly after the students received the summons in April, but the university “stalled” to move the hearings to the summer.
“Changes have to be made in the Handbook so that regardless of what the charges are – protest or plagiarism – students have a fair chance to make their cases,” she said.
The faculty may undertake a Handbook review with the new dean of students, according to Stephen Sapp, professor and chair of the religious studies department and chair of the Faculty Senate.
Sapp said he would propose that the Faculty Senate’s Student Affairs Committee engage in a review of the current disciplinary process.
“Absolutely apart from where anyone would come down on the issue,” he said, “I think it’s time and it’s appropriate for the current policies and procedures – since they are the point at issue in the controversy – to be looked at.”
Patricia Mazzei may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.