In an open letter to BYU students posted yesterday at the BYU News site, Honor Code Office (HCO) Director Kevin Utt announced additional procedural changes to the way the HCO does business. I’m just going to paste the relevant part of the letter that identifies the three identified changes:
Students have also shared with me the anxiety they and others have felt when coming into the Honor Code Office. We believe that we can help reduce this apprehension with increased transparency, and we want our students to know that the following improvements have been made:
* You will know at the start of our first meeting why we have asked you to come to the Honor Code Office and the nature of the reported violation. If you are self-reporting, we want you to have a clear understanding of what we need to know to help you remain in, or return to, good standing within the university. I want to reiterate that you will NOT be presumed in violation of an Honor Code policy unless you either accept responsibility or the investigation process makes such a determination.
* As part of our process, you will be told the name of the person who has reported the violation, except in situations where it is a matter of safety to a member of our campus community.
* From the first meeting with us, you will be given an explanation regarding what the investigation process entails and support resources that are available to you as you participate in the process. This includes an explanation of the steps we will take to find information that corroborates or disputes the original report; the preponderance of evidence standard that universities use; and the possible outcomes if found responsible for the policy violation.
Of course, I applaud these changes. But this also shines a light on the way the HCO did business for, say, the past forty years. It would appear that, in the past, (1) students were often not told what violation they were being investigated for; (2) students were often not told who had reported the violation; and (3) students were often not given an explanation of the investigation process, what resources they could use to defend themselves against the charge, and what the HCO would or would not do to support the charge. Well, no wonder BYU students have been so upset about the HCO!
These are all procedural changes. Keep in mind that in the law there are several types of rules that apply to a trial or proceeding. There is substantive law, such as a criminal code that identifies specific crimes and the elements required to establish the crime; there is the law of evidence, stating what is or is not admissible to prove or disprove the elements of a specific crime a person is charged with; and there is procedural law, like the various Rules of Criminal Procedure that are enacted by each state, which identifies what things a prosecutor and the Court must, can, and cannot do in the course of a trial or proceeding. These changes are not to the substance of the Honor Code or to evidence that is or is not allowed against the accused student, just to the procedures the HCO follows or at least promises to follow. The procedural changes announced in the letter are very encouraging, at least if your view of the HCO is that it ought to be fair to students.
I won’t launch into a review of additional steps that might be taken. Let’s run with the good changes announced for now. Okay, just one: there is no mention of any actions or consequences for false reports to the HCO. Based on several of the many student accounts of interactions with the HCO that have been publicized over the last few months, this is sometimes a problem. And given the prior guilty-until-proven-innocent approach of the HCO, it could be very difficult for an accused student to refute a false allegation. The only way to reduce false reports is to hold those making them accountable. Maybe that will be part of the next set of procedural upgrades.
Some additional coverage of the letter announcing the changes: Deseret News article, Daily Universe article. In addition, a month ago there was a Q&A with the new HCO Director posted at BYU News.