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On or about Monday, November 18, a new Code of Conduct draft was drawn up by the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees. The draft first became public during Free Cooper Union’s document release, #TwoWeeksOfLeaks, and was being heavily discussed on twitter and facebook. It was discussed at the November 20, 2013 meeting of the Academic and Student Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees, with the Faculty-Student Senate unable to attend. A couple days later, the Faculty-Student Senate Executive Committee sent an email to the student and faculty community on Friday, November 22 with a copy of the document, explaining that it had been given the draft just before the Thanksgiving Holiday with instructions to vet the 16 page document by right after the Holiday. The student councils met separately and as a Joint Student Council to discuss, and the Art School Council specifically sent out a response email iterating a number of serious problems with the new document, on Monday, December 3. The next day, the Senate held an open meeting in the Great Hall, detailed below, to discuss issues with the content and process of the document. The most serious procedural issue with the creation of the new Code of Conduct was that changes usually originate with the JSC and are then ratified by the Trustees, due to Peter Cooper having made statements proclaiming that students must govern themselves; contrast the new process with the previous process back in 2010. Later that afternoon, the Senate sent out another email with the motion that passed at the meeting. Late that evening, Board Chair Mark Epstein sent an email to the community with his feedback on the meeting and the process. This week, on Wednesday, December 11, at the Board Meeting, it was agreed that “Dean Baker and Associate Dean of Student Affairs Chris Chamberlin would undertake a consultative process with the Joint Student Council after the winter break to develop appropriate revisions that they can recommend to the Board of Trustees for consideration”.
Dec 3, 2013
Senate Executive Committee members and presiding over the meeting were: Stan Mintchev, Atina Grossmann, and Mike Essl A’96, pictured on the right. Member attendance: Emily George, Daniel Lepek, Yuta Makita, Hunter Mayton, Julie Castelluzzo, Christine Osinski, Andy Overton, Sean Sculley, Assoc Dean for Art, Elizabeth O’Donnell, and Carol Salomon.
Alumni attending to witness were: Mary Lynch ChE’82, Mina Greenstein A’56, Yash Risbud EE’92, and Sean Cusack BSE’98.
Stan Mintchev announced that the meeting would run until 1:25PM, at which point the Senate would meet and run a formal meeting to attend officially to the issues raised. He noted that due to the urgency imposed by the December 4th deadline for submission of comments on the proposed code the emergency meeting was being held despite absence of President Bharucha and Dean Dahlberg, who were out of town on a fundraising trip. He then read from an Executive statement that included the topic points that were likely to need covering in the meeting. These included:
- Major structural changes to the document
- That it empowers only Trustees to make changes in the future
- That it restricts off-campus activities
- Conduct not mentioned explicitly can be used for disciplinary action
- Authority on punishments had changed
- Authority to select student representation changed
- Parental notification changed
Richard Stock, ChE professor and President of the Full-Time Faculty Union (CUFCT) made several statements at the podium as well:
- The document is extremely broad-based
- It gives too much authority to the Dean of Students and President
- Many terms were extremely vague and too easy to misuse, such as “activity that credits Cooper Union”, “personal integrity”, “timely manner”, “no objectively offensive recordings”, “no defamation”, none of which were defined specifically
- The document also allows for digging up old complaints in order to bring punishments
Mike Essl spoke and discussed back and forth with Chris Chamberlain, the Acting Dean of Students and Resident Life. He requested Chris’ official job description and some background on how the document came into being. It was created by the Executive Committee, without including the Senate or the JSC, and was formed from other Codes of Conduct at 26 other institutions, including 9 pages verbatim from the College of NJ.
Atina Grossmann asked Mark Epstein A’76, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, why the Board was getting involved with the “nitty-gritty” of student affairs, and involving themselves in what has always been the province of students, faculty, and deans. He came to the podium to speak and answer questions.
- The current code of conduct doesn’t allow the Board to react to things like sit-ins
- Title IX says we have to manage some off-campus activities, such as harassment, for which the Board is legally liable
- When asked whether the previous Code allowed reactions, since some students were in fact punished, Mr Epstein responded that it was not strict enough
- When asked why he did not involve the Senate or the JSC in the creation of the document, he said that he thought it would be better this way, that “no matter what, you would complain about it” and that “this is shared governance, today, discussing it”
Several students came to the podium and brought their concerns to the group:
- The document strikes fear and anxiety into the students – anything can be used to punish anyone
- This is counter to Cooper Union and freedom of expression
- The new judicial appeal procedure now has no students, or at least minority students, involved
- Faculty may work with students every day, but administrators do not – they should not be allowed to solely judge student behavior
- The new Code of Conduct undermines student governance and devalues the student body, as in some situations they are held up on a pedestal, and here are disenfranchised
Members of the student councils also spoke:
- The Art School Council collected 139/141 signatures to reject the Code of Conduct
- The Architecture School Council declared the document a gross violation of shared governance
- The Engineering School collected 123 signatures to reject the document
Several students, as well as Humanities Professor Peter Buckley, Electrical Engineering Professor Toby Cumberbach, and Art Professor David Gersten referred to or quoted Peter Cooper from a letter that he wrote to the college’s trustees in 1859, in which he spoke to how important the concept of student self-governance is to The Cooper Union:
“Desiring, as I do, that the students of this institution may become pre-eminent examples in the practice of all the virtues, I have determined to give them an opportunity to distinguish themselves for their good judgment by annually recommending to the Trustees for adoption, such rules and regulations as they, on mature reflection, shall believe to be necessary and proper, to preserve good morals and good order throughout their connection with this institution.
“It is my desire, and I hereby ordain, that a strict conformity to rules deliberately formed by a vote of the majority of the students, and approved by the Trustees, shall forever be an indispensable requisite for continuing to enjoy the benefits of this institution. I now most earnestly entreat each and every one of the students of this institution, through all coming time, to whom I have entrusted this great responsibility of framing laws for the regulation of their conduct in their connection with the institution, and by which any of the members may lose its privileges, to remember how frail we are, and how liable to err when we come to sit in judgment on the faults of others, and how much the circumstances of our birth, our education, and the society and country where we have been born and brought up, have had to do in forming us and making us what we are. The power of these circumstances, when rightly understood, will be found to have formed the great lines of difference that mark the characters of the people of different countries and neighborhoods. And they constitute a good reason for the exercise of all our charity. …
“I trust that the students of this institution will do something to bear back the mighty torrent of evils now pressing on the world. I trust that here they will learn to overcome the evils of life with kindness and affection. I trust that here they will find that all true greatness consists in using all the powers they possess to do unto others as they would that others should do unto them; and in this way to become really great by becoming the servant of all.”
Atina Grossmann spoke at length about what, in her words, would be obvious to any student of HSS3: that an authority that feels insecure and its legitimacy threatened responds by over-reacting and over-reaching, thereby creating exactly the situation it seeks to contain:
- The Board of Trustees was frustrated by the occupation of the President’s office
- In their insecurity, they seek more authority
- But in return the students feel disrespected and are more likely to protest
- The new document allows freedom of expression but only if it “respects others”, whatever that means; contrast that with the July 2012 Code of Conduct: “The right to express views on issues of institutional policy.”
- Issue of parental notification as well as off campus behavior. The Cooper code over-reaches. NYU for example is much more careful about sanctioning off-campus behavior. Examples from other codes (such as Swarthmore, a small private college) on parental notification — there are indeed cases where it is deemed necessary but only in extreme situations…. and only after student has (if medically possible) been offered opportunity to self-initiate the contact with parents or guardians.
- Atina also highlighted the irony of having the very same instance (namely Associate Dean of Student Affairs) to whom students are supposed to turn and faculty are supposed to refer for crisis behavior — which might include for example, substance abuse (whether legal or illegal drugs), academic dishonesty resulting from panic and stress over grades — be the authority responsible for determining violations and adjudicating punishment process. This creates a a clear conflict of interest making it ethically impossible for me [her]as faculty member to refer students for help that they clearly need and deserve; just when we were pleased to note that new Dean of Student Affairs seemed to be paying more attention to issues of student stress and the need for mental health support services. This code undermines that progress, goes totally in the wrong direction.
- As problematic as it is that the preamble is identical to that of NJIT and therefore in no way attuned to particular realities of Cooper Union, an art, architecture, and engineering school in midst of New York City, it is also not the case that the Cooper code is merely generic, i.e. no different from that of other schools, such as Columbia, the iconic site of student protests, explicitly states that students do have right to protest
Lawrence Cacciatore, Chief of Staff and Secretary to the Board, spoke next about wanting to talk about the essence of what it means to be a student at Cooper Union. He related how scared he felt for everyone during the initial moments of the occupation, and how some students had surrounded President Bharucha and himself on the street and banged on a cab window when they got into a car to drive away. His speech was mainly directed at having a discussion about what actions on the part of the students, particularly the protesters, actually merit that of someone privileged to be a student at Cooper Union. At the end, Mike Essl asked whether the Code could be tabled while having such a discussion, David Gersten pointed out that the new Code was fundamentally different and not just a few details changed, and a student questioned why this deep discussion now, when there is a day left to discuss sweeping governance changes.
An Art Council member spoke about how there are actually some points in the new Code that require updating. That being said, he clarified that the reactions on the part of the administration were in his mind disproportionate to the actions of the students. Likewise, fourth year Architecture student spoke about working in administration and being conflicted, as the administrators in Student Life had always held good judgement in his eyes. He mentioned that Chris Chamberlain holds self-actualization up with food and shelter as needs for students, and that the Code of Conduct changes thus make him feel ultimately less secure.
Justin Harmon, the new VP of Communications at Cooper Union, spoke next, stating that he’s regretful that passionate people are talking past each other. He said that he has much to learn, respects the strong support for a student-run code of conduct at the school. That being said, other schools have had to grapple with issues that Cooper’s current Code does not cover. Peter Cooper may have had an ideal in mind when he created the school, but it is an experiment democracy, and much has happened legally and financially since that time, he continued. Mr Harmon closed with asking if there was anything he could do to mediate the discussion, and whether there was anything that the students could offer to the trustees as a show of good faith.
Professor of Art Day Gleeson, Professor of Humanities Sonya Sayres, and Richard Stock closed out the open portion of the meeting with a few remaining remarks. Ms Gleeson pointed out that it now says “Code fo Conduct” not “Student Code” and is therefore an expansion of purpose in the document, and that the new code gives the ability to the Dean of Students to compel testimony from a student against a peer, something that even courts cannot do. Mr Epstein interrupted saying that courts can compel people, that the students don’t have immunity. Dr Sayres expressed her concern that impassioned speech was no longer legitimate speech. And Richard Stock mentioned that the only time he had ever felt physically unsafe was when armed guards had been brought on campus at the beginning of the occupation.
Atina Grossmann closed the open meeting, and held a session of the Senate, at which they came to the resolution that they emailed out later that day.