FAQ: Student Code of Conduct revision process

In November 2017, President Pollack asked the University Assembly (UA) to take a holistic look at the Campus Code of Conduct. The president encouraged the UA to work with her Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate to examine specific substantive concerns, such as the definition of harassment, and to address the overriding concerns that the Code is too legalistic, punitive, unreadable and, in some cases, even inconsistent.

The following spring (of 2018), a set of recommendations from the Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate further spoke to the need for significant modifications to Code. The president again asked the UA to undertake a comprehensive rewrite of the Code in order to address the Task Force recommendations.

The UA, in concert with its Codes and Judicial Committee (CJC), continued to work on the Code through the spring of 2020. By May of 2020, two drafts had been completed, one approved by the CJC, and another brought forward by the Office of Student Advocate and endorsed by the Student Assembly (SA). The UA passed a resolution asking the General Counsel’s Office to reconcile these two drafts. The new Student Code of Conduct and Procedures, approved by the Cornell University Board of Trustees on December 10, is a synthesis of those drafts, further enhanced by significant community input. As such, it represents the culmination of several years of work by the campus community.

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions to help the Cornell community understand the content of the new Student Code of Conduct and Procedures as well as the process that led its adoption.

Has the president’s “ask” of the UA changed over the years?

President Pollack’s ask of the UA has remained unchanged: that the UA take a holistic look at the Code and address overriding concerns that the Code is too legalistic, punitive, unreadable and, in some cases, inconsistent, and to craft instead a code that is more educational in its orientation.

Why is it important that the revisions to the Code of Conduct be approved right now?

In response to the 2018 outcomes of the Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate, the president committed to several actions in response to their recommendations, one of which was a significant overhaul of the Code. The current draft is the culmination of several years of work and input by the campus community, including the Task Force subcommittee on Speech and Harassment that engaged broadly with the Cornell community in the 2017-2018 school year; our shared governance bodies; the Office of University Counsel; and individuals from across the university who provided feedback on proposed changes. After granting several extensions to the UA for the delivery of a revised Code, the Board of Trustees required that a new Code be presented for its review and approval by the end of the 2020 fall academic term.

What was the role of the University Assembly in the creation of the new Code and Procedures?

The UA and the CJC have had the responsibility of proposing revisions to the Code. After nearly three years of efforts, the UA in 2020 passed a resolution requesting that the Office of University Counsel take the recommendations of a draft produced by the CJC and another draft proposed by the Office of the Student Advocate and endorsed by the 2020 SA, and combine the best ideas of both to produce a viable draft of the Code and Procedures. Drafts of both documents have been posted for public comment and feedback since early October. The UA hosted a public forum on the new draft Code with university administrators and other stakeholders and elicited feedback from the campus community over the course of more than a month. The Faculty Senate held several sessions reviewing the proposed Code and Procedures. Public feedback from all these fora was incorporated into a Student Campus Code and Procedures for consideration by the Board of Trustees.

 Why was the University Counsel tasked with rewriting the Code?

As early as the summer of 2019, the chairs of the CJC and the UA requested help from the Office of University Counsel in preparing drafts. Counsel provided different drafts of both the Code and Procedures in the fall of 2019, the winter of 2020 and in the fall of 2020.

In May of 2020, the UA passed UA R8, which asked the Office of University Counsel to reconcile the UA/CJC recommended drafts of the Code against the draft version of procedures endorsed by the SA, and to develop a new, combined draft Code and Procedures for community review in the fall.

In his conveyance of the resolution, the (then) chair of the UA wrote, “We all know that the Code is badly in need of reform, and I am confident that the Counsel's Office building on this work by others will produce a much-improved Code that will much better serve the interests of the Cornell community.”

Were members of the Cornell community given an opportunity to provide input into the process? Was that input incorporated into the final version?

Yes. There was robust promotion of the opportunity to provide feedback, and ample opportunity for community members to either post a public comment or attend any of several shared governance meetings (Assemblies and Faculty Senate) to provide input. The website for public comment was open for more than a month and yielded 92 responses, which were compiled and shared with the CJC for inclusion in its recommendation to the Office of University Counsel. Vice President and General Counsel Madelyn Wessel shared on several occasions her appreciation for the input, which significantly helped to reshape the final version of the Code and Procedures.

Why is the new Code simply a student campus code? Will faculty/staff be held accountable to shared community standards of conduct?

Recognizing that over 95% of the cases being brought before the Judicial Administrator (JA) related to Code violations were among undergraduates, the SA voiced its strong support for a “student only” code of conduct, based on current models and research in student development. The SA draft from the spring of 2020 included provisions for alternative dispute resolution, removing jurisdiction over faculty and staff, having the new code held within the division of Student and Campus Life, and maintaining a student-centered focus.

The university has many policies that address the conduct expectations of faculty and staff. Moreover, the Campus Code did not apply to faculty or staff behavior undertaken in the workplace, which helps to explain why any employee cases were extremely rare.

A Cornell Statement on Responsible Speech and Expression, which will be considered by the Board for adoption at a future meeting, will apply to all students, faculty and staff.

Why remove the jurisdiction of the Code from the University Assembly?

The jurisdiction for the Campus Code of Conduct has always sat with the Board and the President, who are the final decision-makers. The change in the new Code ensures that the office that has responsibility for managing the student conduct program has authority, in consultation with the assemblies, the community and the president, to address needed changes and amendments to the Code or Procedures in an inclusive and nimble way. The new Code is framed in this way:

 “Authority and administration of the Code and associated Procedures are vested with the Vice President for Student and Campus Life (VP SCL), in ongoing collaborative consultation with the elected Assemblies of the University. The VP SCL or their designee will chair and convene a standing “Code and Procedures Review Committee” (“Committee”) that will include representatives from the Student Assembly (SA) and the Graduate Student and Professional Assembly (GPSA), to provide advisory input on proposed amendments to either the Code or the Procedures. Further, any Assembly of the University (UA, SA, GPSA, Faculty Senate, or Employee Assembly) may propose amendments to either the Code or the Procedures, which proposals shall be reviewed by the Committee.

“The VP SCL shall publicly post any proposed changes to the Code or Procedures prior to adoption and shall invite community comments at such time, as well as comments from the assemblies. Changes to the Code or Procedures must be formally adopted by the President, with notice to the Board of Trustees.”

What would you say to students who argue that Code changes should be delayed given the pandemic?

The new Code is the culmination of many years of work, which incorporated generous periods for review and comment from the campus community. The procedures for review and feedback were largely unchanged by the circumstances surrounding the pandemic response, and community participation in online meetings related to the proposed changes was robust. Actual adoption by the Board was pushed back to December of 2020 due to the pandemic pressures and delays.

What are the main differences between the prior Campus Code of Conduct and the new Student Code of Conduct?

Among the key procedural changes in the new Student Code of Conduct is the creation of the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards (OSCCS) within SCL. The primary responsibilities of OSCCS include ensuring fairness for all parties and handling investigations.

  • Importantly, OSCCS does not make findings of fact, a responsibility that remains with hearing boards, nor does OSCCS represent the university in cases brought against students or student organizations.
  • OSCCS has broad discretion to work with parties to resolve cases through alternative dispute resolution, but it cannot compel any party to participate in alternative dispute resolution.
  • The Good Samaritan Protocol is formally acknowledged in the new Code as well.
  • In moving the student conduct system to SCL, the role of the JA is eliminated.
  • Complaints are handled differently in the new Code as well. Individual complaints will now be brought by students and handled by them with assistance from a Complainant's Advisor, not by lawyers from the JA’s office Complaints brought by the university are now handled by administrative staff from relevant units, not by lawyers from the JA’s office.
  • Many minor offenses are no longer reportable during employment and graduate school application processes. Informal resolutions and mediation are now options for concluding cases, changes that are intended to encourage accountability and education and avoid the adversarial approach inherent to the former Code processes. The new Code eliminates the separate conduct system for fraternities and sororities; all student organizations are now covered under the same Code and Procedures.
  • To enhance fairness and orderly proceedings, the new Code ensures that all involved parties have access to comprehensive investigative reports and records prior to the hearing process. In addition, a professional, non-voting hearing chair will manage all proceedings.
  • All participants in the new system, including Respondents’ and Complainants’ Advisors/Counselors, will be required to undergo training for the role in order to ensure professionalism, consistency, diversity awareness and fairness across all cases.
  • In all cases with the potential to result in a student’s suspension or expulsion, the new Code procedures allow for cross examination, but insert basic civility protections for parties and witnesses.
  • Finally, the new Code enables us to apply what we learn from experience and make reasoned changes and improvements through an amendments process involving ongoing collaboration and consultation with all of the assemblies and community engagement.

Why is the role of JA eliminated in the new Code? What role does SCL have in the new process?

Among the primary goals of revising the Code was making the conduct process less adversarial and, to the extent possible, less legalistic. The new Code and Procedures articulate affirmative values of education, rehabilitation, restorative justice, and informal dispute resolution, a change in direction that is far more suited to SCL than to the office of the JA.

The Office of the JA served as an ex officio member of the CJC of the UA, and, as such, was actively involved in the Codes revision process. That office offered comments on proposed revisions, and voiced strong support for the new Student Code of Conduct and Procedures.

What are the differences in the evidentiary standards proposed?

There are minimal changes. The new Code retains the existing “clear and convincing” evidence standard in all cases involving individual students. It also retains the existing “preponderance” standard in cases involving fraternities and sororities. The one change is that other student organizations are now all treated in the same way as Greek organizations, and cases involving withdrawal of university recognition of student organizations are now uniformly addressed under the preponderance standard. No individual student can be sanctioned except by a process conducted under the clear and convincing standard of evidence.

Will Greek organizations be subject to the new Code?

Yes. The new Code eliminates the separate conduct system for fraternities and sororities and treats all university-recognized student organizations in the same general way.

Does the new Code resolve some of the concerns related to racial harassment and equity that were addressed by the Presidential Task Force?

Yes. In order to address recommendations made by the Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate, the new Code provides additional rights and protections in race or other status harassment or assault cases comparable to the rights and protections in cases involving gender-based harassment or assault. It also provides for hearing panel consideration of whether misconduct was motivated by bias in establishing sanctions for interpersonal offenses.

When does the new Code go into effect?

The Vice President for Student and Campus Life (VP SCL) is authorized to set the effective date for implementation, but no later than prior to the fall 2021 semester. The VP SCL must post the effective date at least 60 days prior to its implementation.

The new Code seems quite long. Is it less legalistic than the prior Code?

Yes. The new Code is not only less legalistic and complex, it also creates multiple opportunities for informal resolution of conduct concerns. In addition, it establishes an amendments process that allows us to learn from experience and make improvements through ongoing collaboration and consultation with all of the assemblies and community engagement.

How will students access the new Student Code of Conduct? Will it have higher visibility?

Students will be able to access the new Code through SCL’s website, the Graduate School’s website, the University Policy Office’s website, the Office of the Assemblies’ website and numerous other web pages.

Media Contact

Abby Butler