“Someone must have laid a false accusation against Joseph K, because one day he was arrested without having done anything wrong.”
So begins Franz Kafka’s The Trial, the masterpiece of bureaucratic nightmare fiction. The nightmare comes from our ignorance of the forces and laws in which Joseph K has been trapped. While Penn’s student conduct system is a model of due process and fairness, its inaccessibility and disconnection from most ordinary students creates that same Kafkaesque effect.
Students obey Penn’s rules largely out of fear rather than respect. Consider the average professor, who issues dire threats on his or her syllabus of the terrible consequences awaiting a convicted cheater. But this fear is self-defeating — it creates only the most fickle loyalties. If we are to create a code of student conduct that works, students must believe in the purpose of the code, not just in their subjugation to its whims.
The United States had a similar problem a few centuries ago. The solutions are the same: Penn should follow the lead of the Bill of Rights and introduce true student juries in the disciplinary system.
A jury is the heart of the democratic system — the citizens who vote for representatives drafting the laws themselves determine how the laws will be implemented. It also affirms the legitimacy of the law not only in the eye of the defendant but also in the mind of the juror that sits in judgment. For a moment, they are part of the “system,” and in applying the law they come to understand the law and, if voting to convict, accept the law’s legitimacy.
I accept that Penn is not a democracy, but it can still learn a thing or two from the United States. At Penn, our disciplinary system’s hearings are mostly unknown to students — in part because, though two or three out of the five members of disciplinary panels are students, those students are members of Honor Council, a self-selecting 21st-century bevy of platonic guardians. And herein lies the problem.
Honor Council is self-selecting, choosing only the “best” students to render judgment on their peers (in violation of their own charter, which requires that student government do the appointing). But Penn can discipline a student for breaking local, state or federal laws — and so we get the madness of students being eligible to serve on the jury trying their peers for an offense whose trial at Penn they cannot deliberate over. Why are we honorable enough to dispense the death penalty but not to mandate community service?
There is something awry at a school that encourages us to sit on criminal juries and vote for lawmakers but prevents us from administering the system of justice that matters most to us — unless we are found uniquely honorable by a self-selecting group of our peers. Allow any student in good standing to serve on disciplinary panels. Realizing a cornerstone of American democracy on our own campus will not only increase our buy-in to the laws of conduct for our community; it will teach us that students are citizens of Penn as well as their nations and that they have as much responsibility for Penn’s laws as their “real” laws. This is how we encourage honor and respect for the laws.
There are, of course, logistical obstacles to this proposal. There always are. But if we return Honor Council to its real comfort zone as a promoter of good behavior and give students at Penn the same rights at Penn as they enjoy as citizens, we may just start putting a dent in our violation statistics. For when we ourselves are masters of our fates, and not the unknowable bureaucracy dreaded by Kafka, then we will begin to obey the laws out of reason and not fear.
Alec Webley is a College senior and former chairman of the Undergraduate Assembly. His e-mail address is webley@theDP.com. Smart Alec appears every Thursday.Comments powered by Disqus
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.