At Cincinnati, Fairness Is Secondary

The University of Cincinnati has a fascinating response to a recent lawsuit filed by two students alleging serious misconduct by UC and several of its administrators in sexual assault proceedings: “Even accepting Plaintiffs’ allegations as true, they received constitutional due process protections.” Since UC informed them of the charges, and gave them a hearing, courts can do nothing—no matter how the extent of the hearings’ biases, and no matter how indifferent to the truth the university was. That such an argument could come from an institution of higher learning is appalling—but, by this point, not surprising.

The lawsuit, which you can read here, involves two separate cases—one filed by a former UC undergrad (who then transferred) and the second by a former UC law student (who has since graduated). The first case involved a claim that the male student sexually assaulted two female students (in the same room). In a relative rarity in campus proceedings, the accusers also filed a complaint with police—who promptly uncovered significant evidence that undercut their stories. One claimed, for example, that she didn’t know how the male student got into her dorm, but videotape showed her standing by as the second female student signed in the male student to the dorm. She claimed not to have used marijuana, only to later admit that she had. She claimed that the male student got into her bed without her knowledge even though she had previously told police that she had undressed in front of the male student, gotten into her bed, and then he quickly joined her in bed. The other student alternatively claimed to have been passed out and not passed out during the alleged assault, and claimed to have been passed out at a time that the police uncovered her sending text messages. Explosively, one of the detectives investigating the case testified that his colleague believed that UC had “obstructed” the flow of the investigation, seemingly to minimize the accusers’ credibility problems, and that UC’s general counsel “was trying to impede our train of thought and our investigation.”

UC nonetheless found the accused student guilty of sexual assault. It did so after an almost comically biased procedure. A UC administrator informed the accused student that “neither party has any burden of proof.” (This assertion misstated UC regulations; even the preponderance of evidence threshold, which UC uses, imposes a nominal burden of proof on the school.) The accused student went before a disciplinary panel trained with such inflammatory, unsubstantiated allegations as “the average rapist rapes 14 people before he ever spends a night in jail” or “1 in 4 women will survive rape and/or sexual assault during her time in college”; citations to the discredited David Lisak’s work on undetected rapists; and misstatements of UC policy (the training asserts that consent needs to be “verbal and “ongoing,” and that the female student must be “sober,” even though UC’s actual policy contains no such requirement). An accompanying guide from the UC judicial office repeatedly labels accusers as “survivors” (“All reported sexual assaults will be taken seriously and every effort undertaken to assist survivors”)—even though, of course, at the time of the report, there’s an accuser and an accused, not a “survivor” and a perpetrator. Such sloppy use of language presumes a crime before any investigation occurs. It’s no wonder that since 2010, in every case for which a resolution is available, UC has found students accused of sexual misconduct guilty.

The accused student asked to record his disciplinary hearing; UC refused permission. UC policy prohibited him from directly cross-examining his accuser; questions that he submitted for asking went unexplored by the panel. The hearing panel refused to examine either the surveillance video of the students walking into the dorm or text messages from the accusers’ phones. The guilty finding seemed predetermined. He successfully appealed within the university, only to see the cases return to the same panel, which reaffirmed a guilty finding regarding one (but not, oddly, both) of the accusers.

Daniel Cummins, director of UC’s office of judicial affairs, informed the second student, then enrolled at UC’s law school, that “a preponderance of the evidence burden of proof applies. Neither the complainant nor the respondent bears this burden of proof in an ARC hearing.” That UC’s chief disciplinary officer doesn’t understand what the preponderance of evidence requires speaks volumes as to the university’s unfairness. Cummins handled the second case in other odd ways. Even though the alleged sexual assault occurred off campus, he insisted on having the UC disciplinary process hear it. Based solely on the filing of allegations, he informed the accuser’s thesis advisor that the student “has recently been the victim of behavior that violates our sexual harassment policy.” (This revelation suggested he had made up his mind before even speaking to the accused student.) The accused student also faced an interim punishment—including a prohibition on entering the library—based solely on these uninvestigated allegations.

During the hearing, one of the panelists scribbled a note that reflected the contemptuous approach often seen toward due process at the campus level: “Also ->this is NOT a court. We don’t have to do things like in law school.” The accused student was found guilty, and appealed. This appeal, too, was granted—and the case then remanded back to the same panel that had found him guilty in the first place. The second hearing featured the accuser attacking the accused student as a rapist and then storming out of the room before even UC’s permitted cross-examination could occur. The panel again returned a guilty finding.

UC retorted that none of this really matters—that the university only was obligated to hold a hearing and to inform both students of the charges against them, obligations that UC fulfilled. A fair process that might determine the truth, UC filings suggested, is beyond the legal obligations for any university. (Left unsaid was why a university wouldn’t want such a process.) UC purports to concede, citing relevant 6th Circuit precedent, that “a public university student who is facing serious charges of misconduct that expose him to substantial sanctions should receive a fundamentally fair hearing.” But to justify its denial of basic fairness to the two students in these cases, the university relied on Jackson v. Dorrier, a 1970 case involving a high school policy prohibiting male students from having long hair. (“To hold that the relationship between parents, pupils and school officials,” the 6th Circuit ruled, “must be conducted in an adversary atmosphere and accordingly the procedural rules to which we are accustomed in a court of law would hardly best serve the interests of any of those involved.”) It’s remarkable that UC could consider a grooming policy for high school students to be somehow relevant to whether a college student is entitled to fundamental due process when facing a life-altering sexual assault allegation. But perhaps not too surprising: UC also contends that even if its policy placed the burden of proof on the accused (which university briefs somewhat ineffectively denied), doing so “would not compel a finding that due process was violated.” Ponder that again: a public university has publicly affirmed that a policy that presumed students guilty of sexually assault would be constitutionally acceptable.

The university also justified its decision to impose interim punishments on students accused of sexual assault, on grounds that “federal regulations require the University to offer such [interim] accommodations or interim measures to victims of sexual assault” [emphasis added]. At the interim stage, of course, there is no victim—there’s an accuser and an accused. And Cincinnati’s filings also claimed that the Dear Colleague letter “directed” it to follow certain procedures, even though two high-ranking Education Department officials conceded last year that departmental guidance letters were just that—guidance, not obligations on universities.

UC seems to go out of its way to envision its undergraduates and even law students as the equivalent of high school students. For the proposition that it’s OK to deny students accused of sexual assault any right to cross-examine their accuser, the university cited a 2014 6th Circuit case involving a high school freshman. And for the proposition that it’s OK to deny students accused of sexual assault meaningful right to cross-examine their accuser by requiring questions to be funneled through a panel that might modify or simply ignore them, the university cited a Connecticut case involving a high school senior.

Since UC sees its students as glorified high-schoolers, perhaps parents would be better off sending their children to another university.

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