On Friday, February 16, the College Judiciary Committee met to discuss a charge of theft. A student had been accused of stealing $600 dollars from the library. The money was an accumulation of late fines and charges for photocopying.
The CJC meeting was notable because it involved theft. “The vast majority involve academic misconduct,” explained Dean of Students Jim Larimore. This was both the first meeting of the year and also Larimore’s first chance to observe Swarthmore’s judiciary system in action. He was impressed by what he saw.
Larimore arrived at Swarthmore after working for seven years at Dartmouth College and fourteen years at Stanford University. At both schools, he was involved in judiciary processes. He worked intimately with Dartmouth’s Committee on Standards and with the Stanford Judicial Committee. He has come to believe that these committees strongly reflect the “culture and history” of the institutions they serve.
Swarthmore’s CJC, he explained, is a “great fit with the campus culture,” as it “has some structure, but it isn’t overly prescribed and rigid.” He contrasted this to Dartmouth, where the judicial process is outlined with “several scripted statements to ensure that some parts of the process are identical.” At Dartmouth, the scripts are an effort to create consistency.
Swarthmore addresses this concern by bringing both Dean Larimore and Dean Westphal to act, primarily, as overseers of the process. The two deans work towards consistency and towards the goal of smooth logistics. They rarely play a dominant role, however. The Dean of Students is only expected to vote in the case of a deadlock, and this happens “very infrequently,” explained Larimore.
For Larimore, the recent CJC hearing exemplified the strengths of Swarthmore’s system. The members of the committee, both students and staff, displayed a “sense of personal responsibility and community standards,” and a “strong desire for facts and different accounts.”
Since coming to Swarthmore, Larimore has observed that Swarthmore students hold professors in very high regard. He was curious how this attitude of respect would be reflected in the committee session. Instead of seeing the students defer to the faculty members, however, he “saw a robust give and take,” a mirror of Swarthmore’s extensive seminar program.
At Swarthmore the judiciary committee is not only the arbitrator in cases of offenses, but it also considers ways in which the College can revise its procedures so as to make similar offenses less likely to occur in the future. In the case of the recent discussion of the theft of library funds, for example, the CJC sent recommendations to McCabe Library to prevent further theft. Larimore was particularly impressed by this discussion because it strongly showed that Swarthmore considers not only the offender but also the context in which the offense occurred, suggesting both the offender and the school could learn from the incident.
Swarthmore “starts from an assumption of trust” in students, Larimore noticed. It wasn’t that Dartmouth and Stanford didn’t trust students, but instead that at Swarthmore “we trust more rapidly than other institutions.” Swarthmore’s basic assumption is “a pretty sturdy one,” concluded Larimore.
One of the facets of Swarthmore’s CJC that inspires some confusion is its standard of guilt. Whereas the United State Court system declares someone guilty when the evidence suggests this is ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ Larimore notices that Swarthmore standards is one he describes as ‘more likely than not.’ This standard is overwhelmingly common at colleges and universities, Larimore explained. “There may be as few as two schools that operate with the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard.”
The standard is technically a 51% standard. Dean Larimore believes that at Swarthmore the standard is actually significantly higher. There is “a lot of responsibility on the faculty and students on the panel to decide what is fair and reasonable,” he argued, and “each person on the committee needs to convince themselves of guilt.” All in all, despite this low standard of guilt, Larimore believes the system is robust, consistent, and fair.
Ultimately, Larimore feels that the CJC is a “comfortable fit” for Swarthmore College, reflecting the school’s close and trusting relationship between the administration, faculty, and students.
The Phoenix’s March 1st article, “Student steals $600 as McCabe cameras remain inactive,” contains more details of the incident addressed by the CJC. The article can be found online here: http://phoenix.swarthmore.edu/2007-03-01/news/16950