Kate Hardiman, Staff Writer
Exploring the Switch from the Office of Residential Life to the Office of Community Standards
Students returned to campus this autumn to arguably the most comprehensive change to Notre Dame’s disciplinary procedures in the past year: the abolition of the Office of Residential Life (ORL) and the establishment of the Office of Community Standards (OCS).
The OCS was developed through a two-year procedural review and seeks to emphasize education and student development rather than punishment. The chief procedural revision dispels discrepancies between where first-time rules offenders meet with authority figures.
Previously, if campus police (NDSP) caught an underage, intoxicated student on or off campus, the incident was reported directly to the ORL. Later, the student would meet with administrators in the Main Building.
But if a resident assistant (RA) were to report the same student for breaking the rules within a dorm, that student would meet with her rector and may or may not have to go to ORL at all.
Now, all first time offenders—regardless of where or by whom they are caught—meet personally with their dorm’s rector.
The new disciplinary policies
Many students are unsure of how these procedural revisions will affect them, or even what the new policies are.
One freshman living in Morrissey commented that “there is much ambiguity surrounding the disciplinary policies. We weren’t told what would happen for first and second offenses other than that you would meet with your rector. I had no idea that if you were caught by NDSP you still only speak to your rector instead of going to Main Building.”
Through the new policies, OCS seeks to nullify the inconsistencies that students often bemoaned in ORL’s case referral process, while also protecting students’ privacy. Two major punishments under Res Life—namely, fines and a permanent mark on a student’s record—no longer exist.
OCS developers, such as office director Ryan Willerton and assistant director Brenda Hunt, acknowledge that privacy is a sensitive topic for students. OCS no longer discloses any offenses (other than those resulting in disciplinary probation, temporary dismissal or expulsion) to graduate schools, bar associations or prospective employers.
Willerton clarified in an interview with the Roverthat the changes to the University Conduct Procedures mainly focused on the disciplinary process itself, leaving policies such as alcohol enforcement and parietals untouched. Disciplinary outcomes for students will be meted out “in-house” by the rectors and refocused toward reformation and education. OCS notes that this procedural consistency will apply to all student offences, not just first-time offences.
Why the change?
ORL saw the need for a comprehensive analysis of Notre Dame’s student conduct policy, since it has remained largely the same for the past 20 years. The transformation from ORL to OCS was based on a study of 17 peer institutions; panels of faculty, staff and selected students benchmarked the policies of reputable universities such as Washington University in St. Louis, Northwestern, Duke, Vanderbilt, Princeton, Stanford and Columbia with a view toward improving Notre Dame’s own policies.
Yet of those 17 institutions, only two—Boston College and Georgetown—are institutionally Catholic.
Notre Dame identifies with the previously mentioned peer institutions academically and attracts the same caliber of highly intelligent and motivated students. Yet, in examining its peer universities’ disciplinary policies, Notre Dame considers its own Catholic character as well, and the impact that character should have on its disciplinary procedures.
Willerton has spoken briefly to this concern. He is quoted in a fall Observerarticle as saying “the reason [a report of the offense] would go to [a student’s] rector is based on the concept of subsidiarity. Catholic Social Teaching believes in handling things at the lowest level possible…we hope [students’] rectors can have the most productive conversations with them.”
OCS, through its research, examined the trends in disciplinary methods that other campuses employ for conduct meetings. It also investigated the effectiveness of sanctions, case review processes and the merits and demerits of record-retention and reporting.
Willerton commented to the Roverthat “there was no ‘end in mind’ with the process; meaning, we did not say ‘this is what it needs to look like.’ We gathered information on a number of topics and then crafted changes based on areas where we could improve our processes.” Certain publications like ThePrinceton Reviewand College Prowlerhave historically gathered information from students via polls and have assigned “C” grades to Notre Dame’s campus strictness.
Standardization and particularity
The rectors make up the backbone of OCS, as they meet with students after their first offenses. Though the new office avoids confusion regarding meeting places for punishment discussion, it may actually make the punitive policies themselves less standardized.
Specialized punishments, however, may be beneficial.
As stated on OCS’s website, “outcomes from meetings are formative by design and tailored to meet the developmental needs of the student.” Rectors can assign a variety of reforms ranging from community service to mandatory workshop attendance to written assignments. Rectors can also alter outcomes based on a student’s past history and the seriousness of the first offense.
Rectors are trained and familiar with the University’s Standards of Conduct and have always been instrumental in enforcing policy and promoting productive discussions with students. According to Willerton, OCS has “regular dialogue with rectors about our conduct process, and already has plans in place to share the best practices and evaluate the effectiveness of assigned outcomes through our ongoing partnership.”
The undermining potential of residential policy enforcement
According to Willerton, OCS is emphasizing consistency in process over consistency in outcomes. Trusting that rectors know their residents best, OCS gives them free reign to converse and prescribe individual requirements for students. A discussion with a junior may be radically different than one with a freshman, and these cases can now be handled with more discernment.
One student resident of Breen-Phillips Hall who was caught by NDSP on campus while under the influence of alcohol told the Rover that she met with her rector the following day.
“My rector spoke with me about the events of my night and I had to describe my decision-making. She assigned me a written reflection paper in which I had to explain what I did wrong, what I learned from my mistake and what I will do differently in the future. The paper seemed to me a mere formality—it didn’t require much thought and I’m sure many people don’t take them seriously.”
It is no secret that there are major discrepancies in alcohol enforcement across campus. Policies in male and female dorms are the same, but the difference in how RAs in male and female dorms endorse these policies is vast. Students can be punished quite differently for similar offenses due merely to the strictness of their rector. Additionally, if the rector knows a student personally and judges that his or her offense is “out of character,” the punishment may be less severe.
Thus, the new policies leave room for variation depending on a rector’s discretion. Despite the fact that Notre Dame’s dorm staff is trained and capable of dealing with alcohol-related issues, the inconsistency in dorm policy enforcement could undermine the hope for new disciplinary procedures.
If a concern of OCS is helping students to grow and mature, men and women must be held equally accountable for their actions. Inspiring growth and maturity amongst students while fostering positive values is the duty of university policy.
Efforts to educate
General confusion stems from OCS’s recent implementation, but the Office has made many efforts to educate students across campus. OCS had a table at Activities Night in the beginning of the year to launch its postcard campaign. Hall staffs distributed a poster featuring iconic images of campus along with a description of Community Standards on the reverse side to students at Hall Council Meetings. OCS has given outreach presentations to 6 residence halls and spoken to athletic teams about new university policy; but in an interview with the Rover, Willerton commented that the office is relying on word of mouth and comprehensive online resources to educate students.
Given OCS’s new approach, the lack of explanation regarding punishments actually makes sense. Since there are technically no prescribed outcomes for offenses, there are no facts knowable to students after they do something wrong other than that they will have a meeting with their rector. To those who know their rector is stricter—meaning he or she actively enforces the policies in du Lac—this lack of knowledge may make them wary. Yet others who are on good terms with their rector may celebrate the removal of fines and long-term record damage.
After all, any student prefers “reformation and productive conversation” over “fines and punishment.” OCS sees the two lines of disciplinary response as mutually exclusive and so has abolished the latter in favor of the former.
Encouraging holistic maturation
As articulated by the Congregation of Holy Cross’s founder, Father Basil Moreau, OCS seeks to approach education “from a holistic perspective—a combination of the heart and mind.” OCS’s staff members say that focusing efforts on student development rather than fines and punishment is more in line with the university’s mission as a Catholic institution founded in the tradition of the Congregation.
The assignment of fines to students who had broken university policies as outlined in du Lacdid not provide opportunities for growth from mistakes, according to OCS, since fines did not provide a productive outcome if considered through the lens of socioeconomic status. A heavy monetary burden on some, others merely dismissed fines with a pen and a checkbook. During ORL’s review process, Willerton said that the reviewers classified such sanctions as “transactional” rather than “formative.” In years to come, OCS hopes students “reflect deeper on the nature of incidents, the factors that affected their decision making, and how their behavior impacts the community.”
One goal not explicitly stated by OCS but nevertheless of great importance is the cultivation of introspective reflection amongst students. Through their written assignments and other reformative outcomes, students have the opportunity to consider how their behavior has impacted and will impact themselves, and how those behaviors do or do not lend themselves toward the cultivation of virtue. Self-reflection will engender the most positive change in the student body as individuals ascertain their true identity; but as the Breen-Phillips student mentioned, many students will not take their rectors’ assignments seriously at all.
In the coming months, OCS will be assessing the effectiveness of its new approach to disciplinary procedures. Its highly trained staff will be taking surveys, analyzing recidivism rates—observing if the reformative outcomes are preventing repeat offenses—and interviewing hall staff. Ongoing discussions with hall staff will yield firsthand feedback about the effectiveness of meeting places and outcomes. OCS members will also conduct a comprehensive review every four years to evaluate changes over time.
Surveying students who have experienced the process may also be beneficial as the office examines the effectiveness of its new policies. Ultimately, the cornerstone of OCS’s success in achieving its goals will be to emphasize not just consistency in the location of disciplinary hearings, but equity in both policy enforcement and reformative assignments for similar offenses committed by students with similar histories.
Kate Hardiman is a freshman living in Breen-Phillips Hall and she welcomes feedback on this piece—especially from those who have experienced the new processes of the Office of Community Standards. Contact Kate at firstname.lastname@example.org.