Writing Sample (Legal Analysis of Disipline in Higher Education)

The Delicate Balance Between Providing Discipline and Maintaining Due Process Within the University System


When analyzing the educational process we would be remiss to overlook the need for discipline by educational institutions toward students. Within the University system in America various forms of discipline are used to maintain a standard of conduct. One of the most widely used forms of determining whether a student is guilty of a particular offense or violation of a college’s code of conduct is through the use of disciplinary hearings regulated by the particular college. When a student first accepts enrollment to a college or university, a student is agreeing to abide by that college’s standards with regards to conduct, which at times may seem to be an arbitrary requirement. It may seem especially arbitrary regarding colleges that enact rather lofty standards with regards to behavior and conduct, such as religious schools. When a student fails to behave according to those standards the student can be brought to a disciplinarycommittee, as the committee would determine whether the student is guilty and what punishment would be enacted if necessary. While a disciplinary committee of a college is governed by that particular college, a student may choose to appeal the decision of that committee to the State Courts if the students feel that the determination of that committee was in violation of State law.

New York’s Civil Practice Laws and Rules § 7803(3)states that it is necessary to determine “whether a determination (by a disciplinary committee) was made in violation of lawful procedure, was affected by an error of law or was arbitrary and capricious or an abuse of discretion, including abuse of discretion as to the measure or mode of penalty or discipline imposed” (McKinney 2003)When we consider the decisions of a disciplinary board of an institution of higher education, the board also has an ethical requirement to have its decision not be capricious or arbitrary.  A decision that is capricious or arbitrary is one that is impulsive, unpredictable or temperamental.

Various types of cases can come before disciplinarycommittees at colleges and universities. Committees hear cases regarding issues varying from drugs to plagiarism. However no matter the issue the board must still abide by the same rules that are set in the New York’s Civil Practice Laws and Rules § 7803. This point is emphasized in the matter of Warner v. Elmira College, 59 A.D.3d 909, 873 N.Y.S.2d 381 (3rd Dep’t 2009). In Warner a student was brought before a disciplinary committee under suspicion of having cocaine in their dorm room. In Warnerthe student was appealing the decision of a disciplinary board which ruled that the appellant was guilty of being in possession of cocaine, and thus should be expelled from the college. The respondent in Warner conducted an investigation that involved a field test for cocaine with three core steps. At the original disciplinary hearing, the “petitioner provided documents indicating that a positive test for cocaine has three steps, with the second step producing a pink color and the third step ending in a pink over blue color sequence.” Id at **383.Respondent’s dean of student life presided over the hearing and submitted an affidavit stating that petitioner “did not present any evidence to show that these [color] patterns were not seen in this particular field test.” Id at **383. The security director who conducted the test filled out the forms incompletely not detailing the exact results of the cocaine field test. Thus the court determined that, it was arbitrary and capricious for the Disciplinary Committee of the Respondent to rely on the ambiguous testing form as proof that the appellant possessed cocaine. Because no other evidence was presented to prove that the substance was cocaine, the court found that the decision of the disciplinary committee should be annulled and reversed.

The matter of Warner v. Elmira College we saw a matter in which a college, for failure to provide adequate evidence and justification for a disciplinaryruling , had its decision annulled by the courts. With that said, it is important to recognize that “while a college or university need not give a reason for expulsion, it must, in fact, have a reason justifying such action.” 95 N.Y. Jur.2d Schools, Universities, and Colleges § 789.An example with regards to a college not providing a specific reason for expulsion yet not having its decision annulled is provided in the case of Anthony  v. Syracuse University, 224 A.D. 487, 231 N.Y.S. 435 (4th Dep’t 1928). In Anthony the Appellee is a student at the Appellant’s college and the respondent was dismissed from the college. After asking why the Appellee was being expelled from the college, she was simply advised that the authorities of the appellant’s college had heard rumors about the Appellee and  “that they had talked with several girls ‘in the house,‘ that is, in the house of the Greek letter society of which she was a member, and found she had done nothing lately but that they had learned that she had caused a lot of trouble in the house; and that they did not think her ‘a typical Syracuse girl.” Id at 489.

When the Appellee in the matter of Anthony would register for classes, she would sign registration cards that would state:

In order to safeguard those ideals of scholarship and that moral atmosphere which are in the very purpose of its founding and maintenance, the University reserves the right and the student concedes to the University the right to require the withdrawal of any student at any time for any reason deemed sufficient to it, and no reason for requiring such withdrawal need by given. Id at 489


The court in this matter found that the relationship with the college was contractual and that the college had the right to dismiss the student in “order to safeguard those ideals of scholarship and that moral atmosphere” that the university was founded upon. Id at 489.Because the university cited this reason it was not found that the decision by the Appellant was arbitrary or capricious thus warranting an overturning of the appellant’s ruling.  The appellants ruling to expel the student was upheld.

In order for a ruling by a disciplinary committee at a  college to be upheld it is necessary that the ruling of the committee be fair. The determination of what is “fair” is determinedin the matter of Dequito v. The New School for General Studies, 68 A.D.3d 559; 890 N.Y.S.2d 56 (1st Dep’t 2009) a student was expelled for plagiarizing portions of her Master’s thesis. The student contends that the decision to expel was based on a decision that was capricious and arbitrary. Also in Dequito we see another element brought to the fore, the requirement that the decision of a disciplinary committee not be “shocking to ones sense of fairness.” Id at 559.Because the school in this matter repeatedly warned the student about the issue of plagiarism in her paper, the court found that the punishment was warranted and upheld the decision of the school.

All decisions that are made by a university or college with regards to the expulsion of a student are not subject to judicial review by the courts. “When a university, in expelling a student, acts within its jurisdiction, not arbitrarily but in the exercise of an honest discretion based on facts within its knowledge that justify the exercise of discretion, a court may not review the exercise of its discretion.” 95 N.Y. Jur.2d Schools, Universities, and Colleges § 789.In the matter of Harris v. Trustees of Columbia University, 62 N.Y.2d 956; 468 N.E.2d 54; 479 N.Y.S.2d 216 (1984) a student submitted an allegedly fraudulent letter, prior to his acceptance in the graduate program, stating that he was still affiliated with the university in order to remain in a university-owned apartment. The courts concluded that there was no reason for judicial intervention. Why? Because the exercise of administrative discretion by the university in light of what appeared to be outright fraud by petitioner was proper.

At times it may become very confusing to differentiate whether the decision is arbitrary by a committee, thus making it reversible by the courts, or whether we may view a decision of a disciplinary board was arbitrary because the standards of one particular college may differ from another. One matter that comes to mind was the recent story of Brandon Davies, a Brigham Young University (BYU) basketball player. Davies was suspended for the 2011 season from playing basketball because Davies had consensual premarital intercourse with his girlfriend. While this standard may differ from that of most colleges in the United States, the BYU disciplinary board had the right to make such a decision without judicial intervention because it was a contractual agreement that was made when the student agreed to attend the primarily Mormon institution and agreed to “live a chaste and virtuous life.”[1] Which would include abstaining from abstaining “from alcoholic beverages, tobacco, tea, coffee and substance abuse; and attend church regularly” 1along withabstaining from premarital sex.

A similar matter to that of the Davies issue, took place in the matter of Carr v. St. John’s University, New York, 17 A.D.2d 632, 231 N.Y.S.2d 410 (1st Dep’t 1962). In Carr a few students decided to attend as witnesses a civil ceremony involving the marriage of two university school mates. Upon finding out that students were taking part in such a ceremony, the university dismissed from the college because  the Catholic Church did not recognize civil marriage between Catholics. Also participation by Catholics in a civil ceremony was a serious sin. The students decided to appeal the decision to the State trial courts which annulled the decision of the university. However the university appealed. The Appellate Division of New York reversed the decision of the trial courts. Why? The Appellate division determined that the decision of a Catholic institution to expel a student for failing to live up to the moral standards of that institution as agreed upon by the student are not arbitrary or capricious. Those types of decisions are left to the discretion of the university and are thus not subject to judicial review by the state courts.

It is a delicate balance between the administration of disciplineby institutions of higher education and yet adhering to a student’s right to due process. This matter becomes ever more complicated when we see the variability that occurs when we analyze the standards of a rather liberal school with one that may have deeply religious roots or a more conservative background. However, the laws that govern these schools and govern the proceedings by which these schools use to determine the punishment for a student in violation of a particular rule remains the same.


[1] http://sports.espn.go.com/ncb/news/story?id=6175090

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