Demystifying COS

The Committee on Standards, made up of educators and student officials, may decide your fate in a sticky situation.

The Committee on Standards, made up of educators and student officials, may decide your fate in a sticky situation.

So, you goofed up. “Goofing up,” of course, is a relative term. The preamble to the Dartmouth Community Standards of Conduct acknowledges this gap between morality and collegiate legality by stating: 

Dartmouth’s undergraduate disciplinary system is not intended to address every social ill or every grievance one member of the community may have against another. There are many behaviors that most members of the community would find rude, disrespectful or obnoxious that violate no College regulation and are, therefore, not adjudicable under the disciplinary system. 

The above excerpt identifies, with remarkable candor, the unique legal and moral limbo that pervades college campuses. By opting to handle most disciplinary infractions privately, college administrations can keep students — who are culturally expected to break some laws — out of the hands of far less lenient law enforcement officials. 

So, before navigating this complex disciplinary terrain, you have to understand its unique set of rules.Your punishment or pardon lies in the hands of a few of your peers, teachers, and administrators. Though that could seem a blessing, it can be more of a curse. Hearings conducted by the Committee on Standards (COS) pedagogically value discussion over fact-investigation. Educators and students will decide your fate. Historically, student officials in COS are more lenient whereas their faculty and administrative counterparts, who make up the majority of the committee, are more stringent. Rulings are decided by a simple majority, and the student COS representative we spoke with deemed this imbalance to be the most flawed aspect of COS hearings. According to this representative, cases typically devolve into student-faculty disagreements. ”Sixteen students form a portion of the COS each year. The Dean of the College appoints eight of these students in the fall and eight students are elected in the annual spring student assembly elections. These elected positions are not difficult to win, because usually only a dozen or so students run for them. To declare candidacy, students must be in good academic standing; can not be on probation or have ever been suspended; and must collect a certain number of signatures from their peers. 

Prior to your hearing with the Committee on Standards, you should glance at the sprawling, novel-length Dartmouth College Student Handbook. The COS assumes each student has working familiarity with the document.If, like 808 students from 2010-2013, you are charged with minor misconduct — anything that isn’t theft, violence, academic dishonesty, or sexual misconduct — then there are three possible outcomes. In the best-case scenario, you receive a warning. In a more severe case, you will receive a formal reprimand. And in the worst-case scenario, you will receive academic probation.

For your hearing, you may select one faculty representative. Though the academic advisor may seem a solid option, a College dean is really the only individual savvy enough to guide you through the process. Two students, two faculty members, and one administrator are assigned to your case and review its documentation the week of your hearing. This case packet contains any background information relevant to the case: witness statements, pertinent evidence, or in more severe cases, Hanover Police Department and Safety & Security reports. For academic honor principle violations, the case packet will contain your test, paper, or other academic materials.

Honesty is highly rewarded. The group of faculty and students compile a list of aggravating and mitigating factors — an aggravating factor is typically dishonesty or concealment of facts. A mitigating factor, on the other hand, is honesty or ownership of misconduct. Since there are no formal guidelines for punishment, these factors, along with past punishments, will help determine the sentence you receive. During the hearing, conducted at the Dick’s House building on Rope Ferry Road, you will meet two new students, two new faculty members, and an administrator. The members of your specific case committee are selected for their unfamiliarity and disinterest with you to avoid bias.Typically cases run for a few hours, although in particularly controversial situations they may run much longer. If, by 10 PM of the night of your hearing, the committee does not reach a resolution, then the hearing is dismissed for the evening and your hearing will reconvene the next day. 

“We have a pretty unique process. While faculty and administrators outnumber students, it is positive that students get some degree of autonomy in the process,” the representative said. “The whole idea is that we aren’t supposed to be a punishment body. We are supposed to set precedents for the community. It’s kind of shocking how productive discussions can come out of these things.”

The more charges you’re accused of, the more time the hearing takes. More charges, however, does not necessarily translate to more intense punishment. The severity of the misconduct determines the punishment more so than the number of misconducts. 

What if you really messed up? Your hearing for the COS is impending, and you’re starting to experience serious anxiety since you’ve been accused of major misconduct.To provide larger historical context, the COS “separated” (expelled) fourteen students in the last thirteen years. Out of 1,000 cases presented to the COS from 2001 to 2013, roughly 19% (192) were cases involving major misconduct. Reacting to serious pressure from myriad sources — President Obama’s call to action, a White House Task force, radical student protests, federal Title IX inquiry, feminist advocacy groups, massive press scrutiny — Dartmouth’s Board of Trustees endorsed a new comprehensive sexual assault policy taking effect in June. So, if your case involves sexual misconduct, you will face much more severe punishment than you would have in years prior. The new policy includes an external investigative model for fact-gathering and adjudication, tougher sanctions, and mandatory expulsion for the most egregious cases of sexual assault. 

Sexual misconduct cases, however, only compose four percent of undergraduate major misconduct cases from 2010-2013. The remaining 96% are split evenly among three categories: physical violence or threatening (29%), Academic Honor Principle violations (44%), and “other” miscellaneous charges that include misrepresentation, theft/damage, unauthorized entry, and the like (23%). Punishments for proven cases of major misconduct range from academic probation and suspension to separation. In some cases, reprimands are also issued. 

In the past three years there has been a small increase in two types of academic honor principle breaches. Students are altering exams before submitting with higher frequency, and as a counter-measure, departments are starting to photocopy graded exams before handing them back to students. Students are also increasingly misrepresenting their academic work, i.e. falsely claiming stellar attendance, submission of work, or falsifying fellowship applications.