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Patty Kleban: Due Process Shows Respect for All Those Involved

by on August 20, 2012 6:00 AM

No one shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of the law.

Due process. There has been a lot of talk about due process as a result of the many reports, warnings and sanctions coming down on Penn State. Due process means guaranteed rights within a given system and protection from unfair treatment.

Due process means that there are rules and safeguards in place to protect us from power hungry authorities, arbitrary consequences and the potential for personal feelings to get in the way of good decision making. It’s the ultimate checks and balances.

For example, the very nice Patton Township police officer who pulled me over last week for running a red light kindly explained that I have the ability to plead not guilty to the ticket. Using due process, I can ask the magistrate to consider that I thought the light was yellow and explain to her that my fear that the Mega Bus behind me was going to send me into next Tuesday if I slammed on my brakes. Or, I could just plead guilty.

We read about due process in legal cases but due process also has applications outside of the legal system. For example, due process is often used in employment situations. A problem employee is protected through human resource policy. Even in states like Pennsylvania that have “at will” employment laws, most employers opt to follow due process to prevent lawsuits and other litigation – and because it is fair.

The issue of due process came to the forefront for me again last week as I was assigning grades for students who had completed summer internships. Several students did not earn the grades that they wanted, including one student who earned an F. Failing a 12-credit course is tough.

Penn State offers due process through the faculty senate policy on grade adjudication. A student who believes that he or she received an unfair grade can use the adjudication process to ask for a review. If the request for review goes up the food chain and those with progressively more authority believe that the faculty member didn’t comply with university grading policies or somehow singled the student out for unfair treatment, eventually the Dean can assign a different grade.

In this particular case, the student didn’t do what he was supposed to do. I emailed him. I called him. I left phone messages. I emailed again. His papers were late or missing. He took extended days off which is against internship policy. He ended up failing the course. His grade was calculated exactly as stated in the syllabus. Although he didn’t like the grade, it was fair. As soon as grades were posted, the student assured me that he would fight it and that “you will be hearing from my parents.”

As I was pulling together the packet of my syllabus, our emails, phone logs, etc. that will undoubtedly be requested as this moves through the adjudication process, I found myself grumbling. This kid doesn’t do what he is supposed to do and it now falls on me to prove that I did my job.

Despite the frustration, I embrace due process when it comes to grades, academic dishonesty or anywhere else when it comes to protecting rights.

Consider academic dishonesty. Penn State recently implemented a university-wide academic dishonesty policy similar to that which has been in place in the College of Health and Human Development for several years. If a student is charged with an academic integrity violation, the instructor must outline the violation and the sanctions in writing and provide that to the student.

The student is then given five business days in which to decide if he/she wants to accept or contest the sanctions. During that time, we encourage students to talk with their parents, coach or other advisor. If the student accepts the sanctions, the charge is documented and filed with the Office of Student Conduct. If the student believes that he or she has been unfairly charged, the student has the “right” to contest it. Sanctions that are contested are then sent for a review by a committee made up of faculty, undergrad and graduate students from other majors in the College.

I sit on the academic integrity committee that reviews those contested sanctions. In several of the cases that we have reviewed during my time on the committee, we came down on the side of the student. In those situations, we felt that the assignment descriptions weren’t clear or that it was more of a misunderstanding than cheating.

As a young faculty member, I was also on the other side when my decision was not supported by the committee. It made me mad at the time but ultimately served to improve not only how I prepare course materials but also the clarity of my instructions. Due process protects and serves us all.

Due process protects us from unfair treatment, overzealous authorities and at-will decision making by those in power. Without due process, an authority figure could impose sanctions arbitrarily and without accountability. When institutions either don’t have or don’t follow due process, decisions may be viewed as unnecessarily punitive, biased or unfair. When due process punishes those who weren’t at fault, the process is flawed.

An institution that follows due process is an institution that values the people affiliated with it.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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