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6/27/2014 12:00 AM

Succeeding in an interim role requires the right approach. And it’s always helpful to gain insight from those who have been there, like Richard E. Rossi. He’s associate vice provost for student life/residence life at Creighton University in Nebraska, where he recently completed a six-month stint as interim vice provost for student life.

Draw on experience, mission

Richard E. Rossi

It helps to have experience and believe in the institution’s mission, said Rossi, who worked in student affairs for more than four decades, with 21 years at Creighton, a Jesuit institution. “Jesuit colleges and universities are very committed to living out their common mission and rely heavily upon faculty and staff to carry this out in their work. I believe deeply in the mission, and am happy to be working at an institution where the mission is more than simply a frontispiece in its handbook. It gives me and my colleagues a daily reminder of why we are where we are, doing the work we do,” Rossi said.

Keep an open mind

Be ready for “considerable readjustment and learning,” Rossi said. Even though he thought he already had strong knowledge about each department, he intentionally asked all staff about their work, successes, challenges and hopes. He discovered programs and efforts that had never been communicated beyond those departments. “I was better prepared to act as a spokesperson for their work, provide them the necessary support for their future goals, and reward them for the fine work they were doing,” he said.

Tackle difficult decisions

When Rossi accepted the interim post, he and everyone else knew he’d probably hold the post for no more than a semester. That arrangement presented benefits and risks. “During a time of considerable change in the institution, there are always those who struggle with the inevitable adjustments to their work in the future. As interim, I was charged with helping to implement that change. Meanwhile, others knew I would be leaving the role at some point and were reluctant to make changes at the direction of someone who was purely temporary,” Rossi said.

But he felt a duty to try to make some difficult changes rather than leaving them for his successor. “You want to help make your successor successful, not burden them with issues that could have been resolved prior to his or her arrival,” Rossi said.

6/18/2014 12:00 AM

Campus officials throughout the country are revising policies, procedures and training to those who handle reports of sexual misconduct, including sexual violence.

It all comes in response to efforts to comply with the Violence Against Women Act, the April 2011 “Dear Colleague Letter,” and Office for Civil Rights investigations. In light of these legislative influences, some campus leaders might consider mirroring the criminal justice or legal procedures. But there are several critical reasons why that’s not the best approach.

Policies differ from laws

Each institution has a responsibility to create and enforce behavioral expectations that protect the learning environment and the campus community. This includes academic dishonesty or disruptive behavior, as well as misconduct that also violates laws, such as weapons possession or sexual assault.

Policies address a student’s relationship to the institution, while laws address a citizen’s relationship to the state. Although students don’t give up their constitutional rights while attending college, they voluntarily agree to uphold their college’s conduct code. And the courts have upheld that colleges can and should set their own behavioral standards.

Plus, college policies can be written so they’re better understood by students, faculty and staff than most state laws.

Conduct hearings aren’t courtrooms

A conduct hearing should determine if a student violated a college policy and what consequences will best promote individual learning and restoration for any harm caused. That determination should be based on a reasonable review of available information related to the incident, including allowing the complaining party and the accused student to review and respond to that information.

All individuals present during the incident should participate in the process. Representation by an attorney or a parent diminishes not only the quality of information provided to the hearing body but also removes the opportunity for students to engage in education and reflection about the conduct.

Also, the “Dear Colleague Letter” made it clear the standard of proof in conduct hearings involving sexual misconduct is simply a “preponderance of the evidence” or “more likely than not.” Ensure everyone understands that although your process can determine if students are responsible, students won’t be found “guilty” or sent to jail, so students should use criminal and civil options if they want different outcomes.

And ensure your process gives students opportunities to:

  • Be informed of policies they may have violated.
  • Review available information that indicates this.
  • Respond to that information.

You don’t need a panel of faculty, staff and students to hear from every witness or a trial like one on “Law and Order.” Instead, view the experience through the eyes of a college student, who might not want to discuss a sexually violent experience in front of faculty or students she might see in class. On the other hand, she might trust that process more than an administrator or investigative model.

Ensure your process fits your campus culture, upholds students’ procedural protections, and provides proper training and support.

Campus experts have value

It takes an entire campus to ensure compliance with Title IX and other legislative guidance. Rather than asking a lawyer or shared governance committee to draft policy, consider your campus experts. Because your institution needs to provide annual training to those involved in intake, investigation, adjudication and enforcement of policies, it makes sense to invest in and support them so they can develop policies and procedures. Then your attorney can have a more consultative role, resulting in policies that fit your campus culture and are supported by the employees who administer them.

Violations present learning opportunities

Student conduct processes should invite dialogue and engage students. Even a student accused of violence is still entitled to the student conduct process.

Perhaps the most difficult part of our job is balancing our care for individual students with the collective student body. Sometimes a college must initiate a complaint against a student because the community could be at risk, such as when you suspect a student has multiple sexual misconduct violations. However, that still doesn’t call for a “prosecution” but rather a dialogue about the available information and a response from the accused student.

Even with the influence of legislative and judicial compliance, if typical students don’t understand our conduct procedures or feel they need lawyers to present their cases, then it’s time to revisit our processes.

5/19/2014 12:00 AM

Student affairs staff at Binghamton University experienced challenges and successes during the planning and launching of new stress-reduction programming for students.

April D. Thompson, dean of students; and Morgan Appel, parent and family programs coordinator, shared their tips and lessons learned at the recent annual conference of NASPA — Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

To launch successful stress-reduction efforts for your students, follow their steps:

  1. Establish a committee. Include representatives from: campus activities and late-night programming staff, strategic communications and marketing, campus recreation, athletics, health education, counseling center, residential life, and the dean of students office.
  2. Discuss key questions.
    • What stressors aren’t covered in our current programming?
    • What coping strategies do we want to promote?
    • Which populations aren’t being reached?
    • How well are we meeting students’ needs?
  3. Determine critical areas. For Thompson and Appel, they decided they needed to:
    • Increase the focus on the more serious side of stress.
    • Teach healthy coping strategies rather than provide distractions from stress.
    • Stay tuned into students’ current stressors and coping strategies.
  4. Develop a strategic communications and marketing plan. Include Twitter, websites and posters. Connect with and reach out to your followers. Encourage various offices to cross-promote events and websites. Also, include parents in your communication efforts. For example, guide parents and students in how to have difficult conversations about failing a test or losing keys and address students’ fear of failure and of disappointing themselves and their families.
  5. Teach by example. Harvey G. Stenger, president of Binghamton University, wrote an editorial in the student newspaper stating exercise is the leading stress reducer, so get out, exercise, and do something for 45 minutes a day. And when he stated, “Let’s go running tomorrow morning at 6:30,” he didn’t think students would take him seriously. But students began running with him and have been doing so ever since. It’s a novelty to run with the president and it sets a good example, he said.
  6. Prepare for naysayers. Parents and others criticized the spending of tuition dollars on puppy play time and other programs. “I responded to every one of those and said every student needs something different,” Thompson said. The student newspaper featured an editorial saying, “Puppies are nice but the library was so crowded I couldn’t get an outlet for my laptop so I could study.” Student affairs staff responded by offering surge protector strips students could check out, which turned them into heroes who saved the day, Thompson said.
Law and Campus
8/13/2013 12:00 AM

Case name: Gamage v. State of Nevada, No.: 2:12-cv-00290-GMN-VCF (D. Nev. 03/19/13).

Ruling: The District Court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss, finding the plaintiff had alleged enough facts to allow the case to proceed.

Case name: Gamage v. State of Nevada, No.: 2:12-cv-00290-GMN-VCF (D. Nev. 03/19/13).

Ruling: The District Court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss, finding the plaintiff had alleged enough facts to allow the case to proceed.

What it means: When a public higher education institution dismisses a student for academic dishonesty, such as plagiarism, it must give the student due process.

And that due process could include permission for the student to be represented by an attorney at a hearing.

Summary: Sujanie Gamage submitted a dissertation to her advisory committee in the chemistry program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in February 2011.

A chemistry professor filed a report in June 2011 alleging that Gamage’s dissertation contained plagiarized text.

After a hearing, the university’s academic integrity appeal panel found Gamage had committed plagiarism. She was removed from the program.

Gamage sued, disputing the academic misconduct and claiming violation of due process rights because she was prevented from being represented and/or assisted by an advisor at the hearing.

The university filed a motion to dismiss.

The judge said the Due Process Clause prohibited arbitrary deprivations of liberty.

Noting the complaint alleged UNLV prevented her from returning to the university and effectively from being admitted to another higher education institution, he ruled Gamage had adequately pled a deprivation of constitutionally protected interests.

The judge refused to dismiss the case.

You Be the Judge
8/7/2013 12:00 AM
Christopher Reichert enrolled in Ellzabethtown College in the fall of 2007. He informed the college he had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a seizure disorder, and learning disabilities in written expression and reading fluency. Reichert encountered difficulties in his sophomore and senior years.

Christopher Reichert enrolled in Ellzabethtown College in the fall of 2007. He informed the college he had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a seizure disorder, and learning disabilities in written expression and reading fluency. Reichert encountered difficulties in his sophomore and senior years.

He allegedly had a heated exchange with a professor when he attempted to drop a course. The professor reported the incident to the department chairman and a meeting was arranged to discuss other complaints against Reichert. The chairman concluded Reichert should be expelled because he represented a threat to others.

The provost overruled the chairman’s decision after Reichert and his parents protested. But Reichert claimed the provost and faculty members devised a multipart plan to force him out. Reichert alleged he was denied further accommodations, rumors were spread about him, and faculty members were told to “make a record of all [his] inappropriate behaviors.”

After a meeting between Reichert and the dean of students, the dean scheduled a disciplinary hearing, which was rescheduled because Reichert had a seizure. Additional meetings were scheduled to discuss Reichert’s professional competency and a plagiarism accusation. Because Reichert suffered a mental breakdown, the college allowed him to take a medical leave of absence but told him he had to face those hearings before returning.

Reichert filed a suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his civil rights as a person with a disability. He also asserted a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1985, alleging a conspiracy to violate his civil rights.

Reichert v. Elizabethtown College, et al., No. 10-2248 (E.D. Pa. 04/10/12)

Did the court dismiss the student’s claims?

A. Yes. The court dismissed the claims for violation of civil rights because the university was a private entity and wasn’t acting under color of law.

B. Yes. The court dismissed the claims alleging conspiracy because he couldn’t show that two or more people conspired to have him dismissed.

C. No. The court upheld the claims for violation of civil rights because the university, by virtue of being a recipient of federal funds, acted under color of law.

D. No. The court upheld the conspiracy claim because the allegations were sufficient to establish a possible conspiracy among college officials with the objective of having the student dismissed.

Correct answer: A and D.

The claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 were dismissed because Reichert couldn’t show the college was a “state actor.” But the judge noted Reichert’s allegations established the required elements for the § 1985 claim. Because he alleged the individual defendants held at least one meeting to unlawfully remove him and also asserted other allegations of disability-based discrimination, the judge decided not to dismiss the claim.

Editor’s note: This feature isn’t intended as instructional material or to replace legal advice.

Law and Campus
8/1/2013 12:00 AM

Case name: State of Illinois v. Oduwole, No. 5-12-0039 (Ill. App. Ct. 03/06/13).

Ruling: Illinois’ Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s judgment, holding that a Southern Illinois University Edwardsville student was wrongly convicted of attempting to make a terrorist threat.

Case name: State of Illinois v. Oduwole, No. 5-12-0039 (Ill. App. Ct. 03/06/13).

Ruling: Illinois’ Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s judgment, holding that a Southern Illinois University Edwardsville student was wrongly convicted of attempting to make a terrorist threat.

What it means: To prove a charge of attempting to make a terrorist threat, the prosecution must introduce more than just a few writings that appear to be threatening from a student who aspires to be a rap singer, plus weapons without bullets, and the opening of a PayPal account under a pseudonym.

Summary: Olutosin Oduwole, a student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, opened a PayPal account under the name “Jeff Robinson” on May 3, 2007. On July 16, the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms informed campus police Oduwole had recently purchased four pistols.

Campus police decided on July 20 Oduwole’s vehicle had been left unattended for more than two days. In accordance with university policy, a campus police officer prepared to tow it away. During a routine inventory of the vehicle’s contents, the officer found bullets in the console.

He also found a piece of paper depicting an inhaler and handwriting. Much of the writing was unconnected words, but it also had the phrase: “SEND 2 to … paypal account if this account doesn’t reach $50,000 in the next 7 days then a murderous rampage similar to the VT shooting will occur at another highly populated university. THIS IS NOT A JOKE!”

Oduwole was immediately arrested and charged with attempting to convey a terrorist threat. A loaded pistol and nearly 2,000 pages of writings were seized from his room pursuant to a search warrant. A large percentage of the entries appeared to be rap lyrics or writings related to aspiring to have a rap career.

A more thorough search of the vehicle uncovered a knit cap with a ski mask hidden behind the back seat. The searches didn’t yield any indication of plans to distribute a threat or ammunition for the handguns Oduwole had purchased.

A forensic specialist concluded the handwriting on the paper was Oduwole’s.

A Microsoft Movie Maker file was found on the hard drive of his computer, but the file had been deleted. However, some captions remained in a compressed drive and the picture files had names of universities such as Harvard University and Penn State.

At his trial, Oduwole produced evidence he was an aspiring rap artist, and an expert testified the handwriting amounted to the beginning of a song.

Oduwole was found guilty of illegally possessing a firearm and attempting to make a terrorist threat. He appealed only the terrorist threat conviction.

The state argued the handwritten phrase on the paper, the creation of the Movie Maker file, and the opening of the PayPal account either individually or collectively was sufficient to support the conviction.

But the appellate court said there was no evidence Oduwole ever had a plan to disseminate the writing on the paper.

And it said PayPal accounts and Movie Maker files weren’t specially designed for unlawful purposes.

Finally, the court found no evidence Oduwole targeted anyone in whom he intended to instill fear. The panel didn’t mention a fake name on his PayPal account or the ski mask hidden in his car.

The panel concluded the evidence merely showed activities consistent with a variety of scenarios. It reversed Oduwole’s conviction.


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  • Meet the Editor

    Claudine McCarthy

    Claudine brings two decades of extensive and varied experience in journalism and publishing to Student Affairs Today. An award-winning editor, Claudine keeps up with the ever-changing world of student affairs by staying in close contact with experts on various hot topics and by attending professional conferences
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