By Fraser Binns, graduate student and member of the Boston College Graduate Employees Union - UAW.
This story first appeared in The Gavel's Spring 2019 print magazine.
About 20 minutes into Father Leahy’s 2018 Parent’s Weekend address at Robsham Theater, three graduate workers stood up, stated “Jesuit values are workers rights” and called on administration to “bargain now with the Graduate Employees Union.”
After Fr. Leahy asked them to leave, 40 graduate workers in the audience exited the theater. This article concerns the subsequent disciplinary actions taken by the Dean of Students’ office against three of those 40, one of whom was me.
A week later, those three workers were called to individual hearings to discuss alleged violations of the Student Code of Conduct. Two of them were indeed in the group that spoke out. I, the third, had only walked out—without saying anything.
I had a closed-door hearing with Dean Kelly, where I brought an advisor who was technically not allowed to speak. Fortunately, my advisor was a retired priest, so he was permitted to speak despite the rules.
Kelly told me I was identified as one of the three students who spoke out. I told her that I walked out, but not spoken out. My peers vouched for me at their subsequent hearings.
Kelly, the sole arbitrator of my case, informed me that Dean Mogan and plainclothes police officers identified me as one of the speakers. I was later informed by Mogan that it was only himself and one police officer who claimed to identify me.
In a video of Leahy’s speech recorded by BCGEU-UAW, Mogan walks across the theater immediately after the graduate employees begin walking out—presumably to get a better view of the workers' faces. I exited following the speakers, directly past Mogan, who must have misidentified me.
Three people originally testified that I didn't speak, and at most two that I did. I never saw any evidence of the police’s testimony. Nevertheless, I was found guilty on both counts.
The disciplinary process allows for appeal, so naturally, I did. At BC, students can appeal on two grounds: procedural error or previously unavailable information. You can't appeal if the hearing officer made an error. However, Mogan later told me that if a previous error became apparent during the appeal, the original verdict would be overruled. According to Mogan, this has never happened.
I found 12 more people to give written statements saying that I didn't speak. I appealed with this new information, on the grounds that I was told my hearing was for “speaking out and leaving,” rather than specifically for speaking out. Another rule of the disciplinary process is that the accused must be told what they are accused of before any hearing.
Dean St. Louis, another dean working under Mogan, reviewed my appeal. I had no prior contact with her, until my appeal was rejected. I was told the “statements [wouldn't] change the outcome of the hearing, nor do they appear to be information that was unavailable at the time of the hearing.”
The Dean of Students did not contact any of the new witnesses for further information. They also didn't attempt to understand why their statements conflicted with Mogan’s. When I asked St. Louis to explain her decision, she said the evidence wasn't new and that “Dean Kelly said the new evidence wouldn't change the result of the original hearing.”
Mogan later told me that appeals almost always fail, and that he'd never heard of a mistake being made. He was unable to define exactly what “previously unavailable” information is, nor provide an example of it.
This entire sequence of events is highly disturbing. Why would Kelly blindly trust Mogan—who couldn’t see the faces of the speakers—and a nameless police officer who may or may not have seen anything, over the 15 witnesses who knew that I didn't speak?
The only explanations are that she either prioritized her boss’ testimony over those of other witnesses, or was afraid to contradict his account. Either possibility is egregious, even sinister.
Why did St. Louis ask Kelly if the new evidence would change the outcome of the original hearing? Surely any appeal ought to be conducted independently? Mogan explained to me that appeals officers only speak to the original hearing officer to determine if there's been a procedural violation—a rule St. Louis admitted to disregarding. And why was Kelly in charge of the hearing when her boss was the chief witness, a blatant conflict of interests?
The disciplinary process at BC is demonstrably corrupt, and a danger to the BC community. The Dean of Students’ office is tasked with judging crimes more severe than interrupting a speech: sexual assault, acts of racism and violence, harrassment, etc.
If BC can't respect due process, objectivity, and impartiality in matters as trivial as speaking out of turn, can we have any faith in its ability to navigate issues as significant as violent assault in a thorough and unbiased manner?
I was placed on university probation, a step short of suspension, but what about those who are wrongly suspended or expelled? What if perpetrators of violent assault remain on campus because the Dean of Students’ office expels the wrong person through a combination of incompetence and cowardice?
Therefore, it is imperative the issues my case brings about are resolved as swiftly as possible. I propose the following changes:
- If a Dean of Students is the chief witness of a suspected student conduct violation, the disciplinary hearing should be presided over by an individual or group unaffiliated with the Dean of Students’ office; for instance, a jury-like committee of students and faculty.
- In the student handbook, the meaning of “previously unavailable information” must be clarified. If a dean is unclear on the meaning of a rule, what hope do they have of applying it?
- Students should be able to appeal on the grounds that a hearing officer has made an honest mistake. To claim hearing officers are infallible is unrealistic. Almost all judicial hearings in the United States can be overturned for this reason (even though judges receive much more training than hearing officers at BC).
- Appeals must be managed by a body independent of that which carries out the initial hearing, as is the case under any fair legal system.
If nothing else, these four suggestions serve as a starting point for discussion on the changes that must be made. No BC student deserves to fall victim to the ethically bankrupt disciplinary process currently in place. However, unless structural changes are made, it's inevitable that many will.