The case of three University of Puget Sound students who were suspended for allegedly posting an incendiary flier is prompting a Tacoma lawmaker to take a closer look at how private universities discipline their students.
State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, has introduced a bill that would require Washington’s private colleges and universities to develop clear disciplinary procedures for when students are accused of violating student codes of conduct.
The measure, House Bill 1962, would allow private universities to be sanctioned — including having their accreditation placed on probation — if they don’t abide by their established procedures.
Jinkins said she began looking at the topic after three UPS students were recently suspended for three years for allegedly posting a flier that labeled 22 students and staff members as “bigots of Puget Sound.” The flier listed the 22 individuals’ names along with short descriptions such as “racist,” “sexist,” “misogynist” and in one case, “rapist.”
The students, acting on legal advice, wouldn’t confirm or deny their involvement with the flier, but accused the university of grossly mishandling the disciplinary proceedings. The students also said the suspension they received was disproportionate to the alleged offense, and harsher than sanctions the university has imposed on white students.
Two of the suspended students are black, while the other is Latino.
This is just to make sure that when students and families are investing upwards of $100,000 to get a degree from a private institution, that these students have some sort of due process that they can rely on if they get accused of something.
State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma
Jinkins said she isn’t taking a stance on how UPS handled that particular case, or whether the students — who dubbed themselves “the UPS 3” on social media — were punished too harshly. But she said the case got her looking at what rules govern disciplinary actions at private universities.
What she found, she said, was that not all institutions had clear policies addressing things like whether students could be represented by a lawyer or advocate, the timeline by which universities have to make a decision, or what burden of proof university officials had to meet at each stage of the disciplinary process.
Jinkins’ bill would require universities to develop rules addressing each of those points, as well as specifying who is in charge of making decisions during disciplinary proceedings, how students will be notified of their options for appeal, and whether disciplinary actions become part of students’ permanent records.
She said UPS already has policies addressing the majority of those issues, but other schools do not.
Jinkins said that while state colleges and universities have to follow adjudicative procedures outlined under the state’s Administrative Procedures Act, private schools aren’t subject to the same rules.
“This is just to make sure that when students and families are investing upwards of $100,000 to get a degree from a private institution, that these students have some sort of due process that they can rely on if they get accused of something,” Jinkins said.
It’s unnecessary, frankly. Every college has a code of conduct that is developed through lots of conversation with students and faculty and their board, and it is in the context of their culture and values.
Violet Boyer, president and CEO of the Independent Colleges of Washington
Jinkins’ bill also would require private colleges and universities to submit an annual report detailing incidents in which they expelled, suspended, or refused to grant students degrees, and the demographics of students disciplined in those cases. Jinkins said that data could be used to help determine if students of color are being disciplined at higher rates or punished more severely than white students.
A spokeswoman for UPS didn’t comment directly on the proposal, but directed a reporter’s questions to the Independent Colleges of Washington, an association that represents UPS and nine other private institutions of higher education.
Violet Boyer, the president and CEO of that group, said Jinkins’ bill would duplicate policies that are already on the books, while forcing private schools to adopt much more detailed rules than their public counterparts. The organization is opposing the measure.
“It’s unnecessary, frankly,” Boyer said. “Every college has a code of conduct that is developed through lots of conversation with students and faculty and their board, and it is in the context of their culture and values.”
As of early January, the three UPS students who were disciplined in the flier case — Akilah Blakey, Andres Chavez and Lydia Gebrehiwot — were appealing their three-year suspensions.
On Thursday, the students said UPS officials responded to their appeal late last month. The university is not lifting the sanctions at this time, they said.
“We are still trying to figure out a way if we can negotiate in some way, but we don’t know if we can make that happen or not,” Gebrehiwot said.
She and Blakey have both finished all their required credits, they said, but they won’t be able to receive their degrees for the length of the suspension.
Chavez, meanwhile, has withdrawn from UPS and is looking to transfer to another university, he said Thursday.
University officials said they couldn’t comment on the case, citing privacy rules.
All three students said they support Jinkins’ bill.
“I feel there needs to be some level of accountability,” Chavez said, noting that even private universities receive state and federal financial aid dollars.
“Even for private institutions, there needs to be set standards they are required to follow.”