A contract lawsuit filed Thursday in Miami-Dade Circuit Court accuses the University of Miami of unfairly disciplining a student who peacefully demonstrated against the school’s labor policies during a union drive by its janitors.in the miami herald, ana mendendez wrote a scathing piece on the lawsuit and its significance.
The suit, filed by Miami attorneys Lida Rodriguez and Kenneth Kukec, alleges that UM officials railroaded their client, Brian Lemmerman, by flouting the school’s disciplinary procedures and ignoring conflicts of interest. Kukec and Rodriguez claim that UM’s actions constitute a breach of contract.
(read the full article from the daily business review in the first comment).
I met this morning with Katharine Westaway, a graduate student who has been subjected to disciplinary action by the administration. She shared with me her concerns about the status of free speech for students on campus and the significance of this summer's disciplinary actions for students in the future. With Ms Westaway's permission, I share with you her experiences and concerns.
Ms Westaway, an MA student in English, is a senator in the Graduate Student Association. A week before receiving her summons, she was informed by James Fatzinger, Assistant Dean of Students, that she had been selected to serve on the honor council. (Does anyone besides Ms Westaway and me find this appointment ironic, given that she would soon face disciplinary charges at the time and that Mr. Fatzinger would subsequently serve as the judge for her hearing?) Since she would be away from campus for the entire summer and traveling for a portion of it, Ms. Westaway requested that her hearing be postponed until the fall. In this way, she could attend, present witnesses and be judged by a jury of her peers. As with all such requests, she was denied. On 29 June, while attending a program at Johns Hopkins, Ms Westaway participated in a "hearing" telephonically. I use quotation marks as it is clear that very little was actually *heard* by the administration in this or any other case.
Although she was asked if she wished to present witnesses, Ms Westaway wondered just how she would do this in the middle of summer when everyone had scattered and she herself wasn't present. The hearing was presided by Mr. Fatzinger who had also been present at the events where Ms Westaway's alleged violations occurred. Indeed, Mr. Fatzinger took photos of Ms Westaway in front of Ashe that she was asked to identify during her proceeding, as can be seen in a window reflection of Mr. Fatzinger seen in one of these photos. Can anyone say "conflict of interest"? (BTW: in all the photos, Ms Westaway is seated on the ground reading with tape over her mouth. How disorderly and disruptive is that?) The administration's case was presented by Gregory Singleton, Associate Dean of Students and therefore of higher rank than Mr. Fatzinger. It seems odd to have the judge have less power than the prosecutor/investigator, no? The hearing lasted about 45 mins. with a guilty verdict given immediately at the conclusion. Nothing like thoughtful reflection. Ms Westaway's punishment: 2 semesters of probation, 10 hrs. of community service, and a 500-word reflection. The relatively low number of hours of community service was because Mr. Singleton had only seen her in front of Ashe on one day. So, the prosecutor decides the severity of the punishment based on his own eyewitness experience? Again, can anyone say "conflict of interest"? Ms Westaway learned this week in an email from Mr. Singleton that she was late in completing the community service and the reflection. According to the email I saw, he said he sent a letter to her "about July 7" which informed her that the deadline for completion was 29 July. Mind you, he had been told that she was traveling for most of the summer, yet somehow expected her to receive this letter (which she still has not received) and
complete two-thirds of her punishment in three weeks.
Ms Westaway felt that she had virtually no rights in facing these disciplinary proceedings. She was not given a real opportunity to present her case with witnesses before her peers, nor could she have counsel (legal or academic) present to aid her. Quite simply, she was not accorded an impartial, democratic process. She is gravely concerned, as am I, that these hearings will set precedents for future disciplinary actions and that students will routinely be accorded no rights. She asks that we work to prevent this, for the sake of free speech and student rights.
On 7 July, a "hearing" was held for the disciplinary charges against Alyssa Cundari, a first-year student. With Ms Cundari's permission, I share with you some details from that hearing.
Dayle Wilson, Assistant Dean of Students, presided the case which Gregory Singleton, Associate Dean of Students, investigated and prosecuted. (I have already commented on this uneven power structure elsewhere.) The two witnesses for the prosecution were Richard Walker, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, and Keith Fletcher, Director of Butler Volunteer Services. The judge, investigator/prosecutor and two witnesses are all under the Student Affairs umbrella. Ms Cundari presented as witnesses two professors (Frank Palmeri and me) and a graduate student (Shelly Stromoski). I leave it to Dr. Palmeri and Ms Stromoski to tell you of their experiences, if the choose. I will share mine as they supplement Ms. Westaway's experience.
As with other students, Ms Cundari was not allowed to have her hearing postponed until the fall. She returned to Miami the day before the hearing to present her case, finding what witnesses she could in July. I was very impressed with Ms Cundari's composure, maturity and determination against the odds. In response to her questions, I attested to the following:
1. The students all behaved in an orderly fashion. It's hard to call a group of students disorderly when they stand with tape over their mouths and hum "We Shall Overcome," pray, or sit reading books on poverty. I noted that I grew up in Oakland in the 60s, during the rise of the Black Panthers and the Free Speech/Anti War movements, attended Berkeley as an undergraduate and taught at Wisconsin-Madison. I've seen disorderly conduct, and our students were always peaceful, orderly and respectful.
2. The students did not block access to Ashe. Following the initial demonstration, which Charles Steele and many clergy attended, they always made sure that doors were accessible. The administration took the decision to lock those doors, and thus obstructed access. I also witnessed the students helping people (students trying to get advising before registration, potential students and parents, etc.) find their way into Ashe since the administration simply locked the doors and provided no assistance to those wishing to enter to do business there.
3. As an administrator in Ashe at the time of Ms Cundari's alleged misconduct, I attested to the fact that the only complaints I received regarding access and disorderly conduct related to the administration. Faculty were especially disturbed by the way they were treated by security personnel, students found it difficult to get in to see advisors, and everyone (including the cops I spoke to) found the decision to turn on the sprinklers absurd. Indeed, the students were going to move from the entry of Ashe to the lawn until the sprinklers came on and eliminated that possibility.
4. Ms Cundari presented photographs of herself, asking me to identify what she was doing: she was sitting in front of Ashe reading. I further testified that I had seen her on other occasions studying for a Chemistry exam. I don't think that reading and studying are considered disorderly activities on most campuses.
5. I was present when Dean Sandler delivered many of his warnings. He simply told the students that they had to leave, but never said that a warning was final, never gave a deadline, never stated possible consequences. In other words, he never said: "If you do not leave by X hour, the following disciplinary charges will be brought." From my point of view, this was a mistake. I know from my discussions with students during the events in question that they were prepared to leave if they were given a final warning, something that Ms Westaway reconfirmed in my discussion with her last week. They simply weren't given that warning.
Mr. Singleton asked me only two questions. The first was about my familiarity with the students' rights and responsibilities handbook. Yes, and I'm appalled by the way it's being construed. (OK, I only said yes, not wanting to prejudice Ms Cundari's case.) The second was how familiar I was with the office of the Dean of Students and whether I had found that office to be fair in the past. I noted that I have been involved with issues ranging from academic dishonesty to inappropriate conduct, and had dealt almost exclusively with Dean Sandler, whom I always found to be fair. I had little experience with the other members of the office and therefore could not judge their fairness. He asked me no questions about Ms Cundari's conduct.
The independent testimony of two professors and a student did little to persuade Ms Wilson or Mr. Singleton. As in the case of Ms Westaway, Ms Cundari was found guilty at the conclusion of the hearing, with the same punishments as Ms Westaway. I have little doubt that the findings in both cases were predetermined. Do we really want students to be subjected to pro forma justice? If we tolerate this, who will be next?