No Sleep for the Innocent
What the Muhlenberg housing crisis reveals about the problem with campus justice.
By Amy Garcia, Johns Hopkins University
Two months ago, 39 female students at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, were blindsided when they discovered that they would be living in trailers this semester.
The students were told that the new temporary housing was added after the school kicked a fraternity off campus for underage drinking, though rumors flew that a young woman may have been drugged at a party. The suspended brothers were added back into the housing lottery, resulting in a shortage of available living space. Yet, inexplicably, instead of moving the offending fraternity brothers to the temporary housing, the school chose to migrate more than three dozen uninvolved female students. Students were unaware of the reasoning behind the decision, or even why the fraternity was punished in the first place, and the confusion led to accusations that the issue was mishandled.
The issue at Muhlenberg was hardly an isolated event though, as it belongs to a larger trend of universities mismanaging student discipline, which begs the question: When alcohol-related crimes occur on campuses, why do schools seem so woefully unprepared to deal with them?
This much is simple: If someone commits a crime, they must be punished. Following this logic, Muhlenberg punished the fraternity. But rather than have the rule-breaking brothers live in temporary housing, why did the university force uninvolved female students to do so?
Unfortunately, the answer lies tangled in the complicated interplay between the consumption of alcohol and accusations of sexual assault. On its face, the solution again appears simple: If a student is sexually assaulted, the assailant should be punished. In too many cases, however, alcohol seeds (often unreasonable) doubt into the victims’ stories, and schools balk at the possibility of punishing an innocent student. In response, universities often resort to occupying an unpopular yet self-preservative middle ground—inaction as a means of avoiding an error (of commission).
As a result, horror stories in which victims are denied justice abound. In 2013, an Indianapolis student discovered that her report of sexual assault the previous year had been immediately written off by campus police. In 2010, a Patrick Henry College student was told her sexual assault was her own fault for being alone in a boy’s room.
As public outcry increased against such practices, the “Dear Colleague” letter emerged from the Department of Education in 2011, informing schools that the accused would be responsible if there was more than a 50.1 percent chance that the crime had happened. Following the letter, as schools wanted to avoid vilification in the media, outcomes shifted to favor the accuser.
Though the change appears positive, it has resulted in an equally unjust trend in which schools now deny the accused their rights, an overcorrection once again committed in an attempt to safeguard reputations. In 2014, the unnamed accused at the University of San Diego was denied the right to present his own evidence at his own hearing, object to testimonies or allow his lawyer to speak. He was suspended for over a year.
Though the Muhlenberg case does not technically involve sexual assault, it is a prime example of why universities’ policy of self-policing will never work. The justice system is not funded by student tuition, but colleges are. So long as public relations are taken into consideration when discipline is involved, universities will err on the side of popular opinion. What gets lost in the balance is justice.