Students, staff talk Handbook revisions

Students express concern regarding changes to Institute’s off-campus jurisdiction

DEAN OF STUDENTS MARK SMITH EXPLAINS the rationale behind the Handbook revisions at an open meeting with the Senate.

Monday, the Student Senate endorsed changes to the Rensselaer Handbook of Student Rights and Responsibilities regarding academic integrity, sexual assault, and sexual harassment, and postponing a decision on the more controversial revisions regarding off-campus jurisdiction.

The policy on “Academic Dishonesty” now reads “Academic Integrity” in all instances, and the two penalties for dishonesty were clarified. (Formerly, it was unclear whether both could be applied to one violation; in the revised wording, students are subject to “one or both” of the penalties.)

The sexual assault policy gained an additional sentence: “Under no circumstances will the Institute’s obligation to carry-out its disciplinary process be excused by a person’s contemporaneous pursuit of the incident through the criminal system.” Also, the following sentence was altered (the addition is italicized): “Students, employees, or third parties aware of any incident of campus sexual assault are encouraged to contact Public Safety (available 24 hours a day), the Dean of Students Office, and/or the Division of Human Resources as soon as possible.”

More extensive changes occurred in the sexual harassment policy. Most of the changes focused around adding so-called “third parties” to various clauses, in accordance with new state laws. According to the revisions, “‘The term third parties,’ as used in these Rensselaer Policies, refers to any non-student, non-faculty, or non-staff individual who is on Rensselaer premises and participating in an academic, educational, extracurricular, athletic or other program that is either a program of Rensselaer, authorized to be conducted on Rensselaer premises, or using Rensselaer’s facilities.” In addition, the revised policy now defines harassment in greater detail, clarifies that RPI will investigate regardless of “the individual’s choice to exercise his or her right to pursue criminal alternatives,” allows for the extension of the 180 day reporting time limit, adds the option for either party to appeal, and outlines new responsibilities for the Human Resources Office, along with several other smaller revisions.

Although Senate did not choose whether or not to endorse the changes involving off-campus jurisdiction, many senators (and other students) spoke with Dean of Students Mark Smith on Thursday primarily about that section.

Originally, there were numerous revisions to Article VI: Off-Campus Freedom of Students in the Student Bill of Rights, such as the removal of “Institute authority shall not attempt to duplicate the function of public authority,” the addition of “Rensselaer reserves the right to address off-campus student conduct which violates Rensselaer Grounds for Disciplinary Action through the Institute’s judicial process regardless of a decision by civil authorities,” and a change from “Off-campus misconduct will typically not be the basis for disciplinary action” to “Rensselaer reserves the right to review off-campus student misconduct and determine will not typically be the basis for disciplinary action.”

“[The changes are] intended to create a standard,” explained Smith, adding that the main goal is to protect the reputations of student body and the Institute. “It affects you individually as an RPI student.”

At the meeting, student leaders (including Grand Marshal Kevin Dai ’14, Executive Board representative Dan Hakimi ’12, senator Elizabeth Anderson ’14, and Senate finance, facilities, and advancement chair Russell Brown ’14) raised concerns from the RPI student body about the Student Handbook revisions.

“I don’t see how [off-campus conduct] is any of RPI’s business,” said Hakimi. Students should be treated like adults, he argued. According to Brown and Dai, many students took issue with the broad wording of the changes to Article VI.

Smith was willing to slow down the process to address students’ problems. “What’s so important is the discussion,” he said, suggesting a goal of December to finalize the revisions to Article VI.

When the Student Handbook went before the Senate on Monday, almost all of the jurisdiction-related changes were omitted. The only additions remaining were the following (italicized):

• “Off-campus and on-campus, students are expected to conduct themselves in a civil, respectful and lawful manner.

• “No student’s status at Rensselaer shall be altered on the basis of pending legal action or conviction for any crime, except when, in the judgment of the Institute, the presence of such student could constitute a danger to the safety of person or property on the premises of the Institute.

Also, the following sentence was removed from the Handbook:

• “If a student incidentally violates Institute regulations in the course of his or her off-campus activity, such as those relating to class attendance; he or she shall be subjected to no greater penalty within the Institute than would normally be imposed.”

Still, Senate did not decide whether to endorse these reduced changes to the Bill of Rights.

The entire meeting with Smith is available online from RPI TV at http://www.rpitv.org/p/470/. The version of the handbook discussed at that meeting, with additions and deletions highlighted, can be found at http://docs.studentsenate.rpi.edu/documents/2035/.

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