Syracuse University has been repeatedly criticized for a failure to guarantee due process and free speech rights for students. Now, a state judge has slammed the university over its treatment of a fraternity which the court found “did nothing wrong” in a racial slur incident on campus. The University continues however to defend a process that was replete with due process concerns. I have long been a critic of the lack of due process on our campuses. This became particularly acute when the Obama Administration pressured universities to reduce such protections — a policy that the Biden Administration now appears to moving to reinstate.
Here is part of the factual background found by Justice Scott DelConte of Onondaga County Supreme Court:
In the afternoon of Saturday, November 16, 2019, four Syracuse University students who were members of Alpha Chi Rho and around 10 to 15 of their friends – who were not affiliated with the fraternity or the University – hung out and drank for several hours at the fraternity house located at 131 College Place. At around 7 p.m. The group left the fraternity house, on foot, and headed to a nearby apartment and watch a basketball game. While they were walking together, one of the individuals in the group – identified only as K.F. – briefly ran towards a woman standing outside of a parked car (Id.). According to the woman – who immediately reported the incident to the University Department of Public Safety – K.F. and others in the group shouted racial slurs at her.
An investigation was launched but the next morning University Chancellor Kent Syverud declared that he was “deeply angered” and that “the individuals involved have been identified and will be held appropriately accountable to the Code of Student Conduct and to the full extent of the law.” He promised to work with the Syracuse Police Department to bring charges against those responsible. The court called Syverud’s comments a “seemingly predisposed public announcement” of guilt.
Two hearings were held but, in the critical second hearing, the university barred the lawyer for the fraternity from being present — a denial of due process that has been used by other universities to hamper the defense of students or groups in such proceedings.
Then something remarkable happened. After being declared guilty, Alpha Chi Rho appealed the Conduct Board’s decision to the Appeals Board, which overruled the Conduct Board on February 21, 2020. The Appeals Board ruled that “University policy does not provide a basis on which to find the respondent [fraternity] responsible for the conduct that the lower Board found to have occurred” and further found that K.F. “was not a guest of the fraternity and is not a Syracuse University student.” Thus, “[he] could not serve as a representative of the fraternity and [there is] no other basis on which [the fraternity] could be held responsible for his alleged actions”
However, the university had already effectively declared guilt the day after the incident. So, in a unilateral decision, Senior Vice President for Enrollment Dolan Evanovich overruled the university’s appeals board. While Evanovich admitted that “it is true the Code [of Student Conduct] does not expressly cover guests of organizations, such an expectation is present throughout the University’s Fraternity and Sorority Affairs policies.”
Evanovich’s claim is roundly rejected by the court:
There is no provision in the Fraternity and Sorority Affairs policy, or the Code of Student Conduct, that allows the University to punish fraternities or the independent, off-campus actions of former guests (NYSCEF Docs. 9, 23, 26). Fraternities cannot police the statements of their former guests who leave campus, and it would be unreasonable to have, or apply, a policy that punishes fraternities, or other student social organizations, for conduct they cannot control. While the Courts will generally defer to a university’s interpretation of its own policies, such deference does not extend to “unreasonable or irrational” interpretations, such as Evanovich advances here.
The court held:
The record is clear: Alpha Chi Rho did nothing wrong. As the Conduct Board found, none of its fraternity members uttered any derogatory or racially offensive statements. Evanovich’s determination that the fraternity is nonetheless responsible for K.F.’s alleged harassment – which occurred off-campus and was not witnessed by any fraternity members – has no rational basis. As such, his rejection of the Appeals Board decision must be annulled as arbitrary (Pell v Board of Education of Union Free School District No.l, 34 NY2d 222,231 [ 974]), and the Appeals Board decision reinstated.AXP, as the fraternity is known, speculated that Syracuse wanted to act tough in response to ongoing protests against alleged racial graffiti in a dorm, so it made an example of AXP.
Sites like College Fix have alleged that the original account of the complainant were contradicted by other witnesses and video evidence. However, it is hard to judge such evidence either way given the utter lack of due process afforded by the university. From the very start of the controversy, Syracuse University seemed to abandon even the pretense of neutrality or responsibility in the adjudication of the dispute. This was a very serious allegation that deserves intensive investigation. Yet, the university went beyond stating a commitment to finding the truth and acted in ways to prejudice the outcome of the proceedings.
The university remains unapologetic and seemingly undeterred. Much like the recent incident at Smith College, there is no indication that it will alter its practices or afford greater due process protections in the future. That is a chilling prospect for students and parents who rely on Syracuse University to protect the rights of all students.
Here is the opinion: Alpha Chi Rho v. Syracuse University