Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Ana Menendez on Students' Disciplining at UM

Here is a column from today's Miami Herald by Ana Menendez concerning the disciplinary measures being taken against UM students for supporting the striking janitors:

Janitors won rights; students weren't so lucky

Almost four months after going on strike, the University of Miami janitors finally got their union last week. The story that began March 1 is almost over now, and the only ones left out of the happy ending are the 18 students who pushed the limits of the accepted in their support for the workers.

Even as the janitors celebrated, UM continued to persecute the students for their nonviolent protests on behalf of the strikers.

Faced with a rigged system -- lawyers say administrators were to function as witness, prosecutor, judge and jury -- students began settling their cases with the university at about the same time the union announced a majority of janitors had voted to join.

The settlements continue. Punishments have included academic probation, a 500-word essay and, most ironically of all, community service.

''Here we are being sentenced to community service when we're being tried for a service we did to the community,'' said Amy Sun, 21, a psychology major who pleaded no contest.


To hear UM tell it, administrators were left with little choice after students repeatedly refused to leave the grounds around the Ashe Building earlier this year. ''They were told there are appropriate ways of recognizing these points of view so you're not disrupting the orderly operation of the university,'' UM attorney Eric Isicoff said.

It's a reasonable argument that would be easier to swallow if this had been the case of a drunken mob. But these are stellar students, many of whom are attending UM on scholarship. For the most part, they camped out peacefully, troubling little more than the conscience of those who chose to simply walk by. They were engaged in a thoughtful act on behalf of a cause they saw as just. Surely the standards for judging them should reflect that.

Far more troubling than anything the students did is the way UM administrators have chosen to deal with it, going after students with a zeal that seems to have more to do with retribution than justice.

First, administrators threatened students with major charges that could get them expelled or suspended. When a who's-who of Miami's legal talent stepped forward to defend the students, UM quickly retreated, downgrading the complaint to ``university offenses.''

''Under their own rules, a student who is charged with a university offense is not entitled to right of counsel,'' said attorney Lida Rodriguez, who is advising Jacob Coker-Dukowitz, one of the student leaders. ``They did it not out of kindness but out of trying to deprive them of the assistance of an advisor.''

Then administrators insisted on holding the hearings in the summer, when students would not be available to sit on the ''juries.'' And in a tactic more befitting a second-rate spy caper, administrators apparently have hauled out photographs to help make their cases.

''They showed me this photograph and all you can see is this red goatee and something that looks like my nose,'' said Daniel Grossman, 21, a film major who lost his housing privileges as part of his settlement.


Late Tuesday, Coker-Dukowitz, who had been one of the hold-outs, joined the others in settling his case. He, too, loses his housing at the coveted University Village, punishment that also imposes a financial burden.

Isicoff maintains that the case against the students is not about free speech. UM, he said, is simply ``representing the right of a whole other group of people who do not wish to engage in this manner.''

In fact, this goes beyond the issue of free speech. In a town that is only now growing into the concept of peaceful dissent, the prosecution of the students -- however legally justified -- sets a sad tone.

Universities ought to be defending the lonely maverick. The world is already full of people willing to argue that the majority has a right to remain comfortable.

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