The Student Code of Conduct at Memorial University faces intense scrutiny due to its glaring bias and inconsistency in its application. Reporters Justin Brake and Rhea Rollmann stated that in the early 2000s, the emergence of student code of conducts in Canada was sharply criticized by student advocates as an overreach by universities into non-academic discipline. Essentially, it gave the unaccountable body of administrators more control by arming them with an extra-judicial mechanism, allowing them to impose rules that could violate the civil rights of students.
A significant concern at Memorial University is the absence of a system ensuring free, fair, and transparent trials. When a complaint is filed, or a concern brought forward to the Student Code of Conduct Office, the respondent is confronted by the Student Code of Conduct Coordinator, Heather Tobin, who invites them to discuss the complaint received. An attempt is first made to reach an informal resolution. If an informal resolution cannot be reached, then the Code of Conduct Coordinator writes a report for the Student Conduct Officer (who is also the Director of Student Life) to review. The report includes the allegations, the response provided, as well as the information that the complainant and respondent shared in the meetings and conversations regarding the investigation. That report is then reviewed by the Conduct Officer. The Conduct Officer then determines if there has been a violation of the Student Code and whether or not to apply sanctions. In response to mattbarter.ca, Memorial stated that throughout the process, the parties can be represented by a third party, such as a lawyer. However, they also stated that it is “not required and generally not necessary.”
If a student receives a sanction from the Student Conduct Officer, they can appeal it to the Head of Campus. On the St. John’s Campus, the Head of Campus is the Associate Vice-President (Academic) Students Donna Hardy Cox. There have been implications of a strong administrative alliance within Memorial University, similar to an unspoken code reminiscent of the camaraderie among police officers. mattbarter.ca has learned that Donna Hardy-Cox recently wrote a reference letter for Jennifer Browne’s application to become an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Education. Hardy-Cox gave Browne high praises. This personal relationship brings into question impartial decision-making in Student Code of Conduct cases.
The sporadic and inconsistent application of rules at Memorial University echoes practices from ancient times. In December 2021, I was banned from campus for a silent protest of the Timmons administration. Rather than stay silent, one of the many pieces I have written following the incident came on August 18th, 2023, when I penned an article in The Independent regarding my situation at Memorial University and how lessons we, as a society, have learned about the justice system since the signing of the Magna Carta could be applied here as well. In the article, I provided an update on my case with additional information and analysis. Based on further analysis, I believe that Memorial’s recent erratic use of its rules resembles ancient times.
From ancient Rome to the Middle Ages, punishments for petty and severe crimes were unduly harsh. For example, torture was common during much of ancient history as a form of interrogation and punishment. In recent history, this is the kind of barbarism we only see from rogue nations and terrorist groups, as torture has been shunned by all governments in the Western World except the United States during the War on Terror.
According to the University of Southern Colorado Professor Ian McDermid Gomme, during the Middle Ages up until the eighteenth century, punishments were “cruel and capricious.” However, upon the establishment of the liberal philosophies of the Enlightenment during the eighteenth century, the cruelty of punishments and their erratic application became unacceptable as innovative ideas that highlighted the natural rights of human beings and the use of reason to guide behavior started to appear. When Memorial punished me for my protest action, they disregarded my human rights and neglected the fact that reason guided my actions. I was involved in many protests in the past and looked at the precedents before I protested former President Vianne Timmons’s leadership. The university justified not prosecuting similar past student protests like the Kachanoski pink slip or the storming of a Board of Regents meeting because they said that Student Code of Conduct matters are complaint-driven, meaning that if nobody complains about a violation, then no Student Code of Conduct investigation occurs. Nevertheless, Memorial filed a complaint against me through its Chief Risk Officer, Gregory McDougall. Given that they have the power to do this, then they could have easily filed complaints against the students who took part in past disruptive protests through its Chief Risk Officer.
In 1764, Italian jurist, politician, lawyer, and philosopher Cesare Beccaria published the famous essay On Crimes and Punishments. During that time, people were often unaware of the acts prohibited by law. Even if they knew an act contravened legal statutes, the penalties were often uncertain. Professor Gomme highlighted the inconsistency of punishments: “Theft of a loaf of bread might result in an agonizing dip in boiling water on one day, the removal of a hand by an axe on the next day, and a warning a week later.”
Memorial University’s disproportionate response to my protest, in the form of a campus ban, was unprecedented and unexpected, highlighting inconsistencies in its disciplinary approach. A subsequent protest by student union members received only a stern warning from the Chief Risk Officer. Baccaria argues that when an individual does not anticipate either the nature of criminal law or the penalty for violating it, then the deterrent value of the law is nullified. Based on past precedents, I had no inkling that I would face punishment when I decided to protest former President Timmons. A campus ban was certainly an unexpected outcome and, until recently, would have been deemed implausible.
The erratic enforcement of rules and disproportionate penalties at Memorial University raises doubts about the fairness of its disciplinary measures. Inconsistencies in handling similar situations underscore the critical need for transparency and consistent application of the Student Code of Conduct.
Matt Barter is a fourth-year student in the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty at Memorial University of Newfoundland, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Sociology. He enjoys reading thought-provoking articles, walks in nature, and volunteering in the community.