Update: Impeachment of Student Government Senator
Dear RIT community,
Earlier this semester, I communicated about the vote of the Student Government Senate to uphold the decision of their Standards Review Board to impeach an elected student senator. In reaching their conclusion, Student Government carefully followed the process outlined in the Student Government Bylaws. Subsequently, I was contacted by numerous individuals who questioned whether university Policy C.11, protecting freedom of speech and expression, had been violated.
As is always the case, the RIT President’s Office is charged with operating the university in conformance with established university policy. Accordingly, I assembled a Review Panel to make a determination on whether the vote to impeach violated university Policy C.11. The Review Panel consisted of staff members who are experienced in hearing student grievances and concerns, plus some members of the RIT Board of Trustees. The majority of the members on the Review Panel were persons of color. The Review Panel was charged to review the evidence and decisions from the Student Government Standards Review Board, and the appeal process conducted by the Student Government Senate, as they related to Policy C.11.
The Review Panel reported their findings to me last week. They determined that the decision to impeach violates RIT’s Policy C.11 on free speech. Furthermore, the Review Panel considered whether the accused student had violated RIT’s Policy C.6, prohibiting discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. They concluded that he had not. Given these findings, I subsequently studied the available evidence myself. I came to the same conclusions and, therefore, am in a position where I must rule that the student in question cannot be impeached for the reasons cited and should remain a member of Student Government for the remainder of this semester.
I know that this decision will please some and will be very upsetting to others. I take no pleasure in rendering this decision. Indeed, absent a pandemic and with daily face-to-face communication, it is unlikely that this sort of issue would ever reach my office. Our student senators would have come to understand one another early in the academic year and, if a dispute had arisen, most likely the disaffected parties would have agreed to a facilitated conversation. Sadly, that was not possible in this case in this particular year. I understand the position of the students who favor impeachment. I acknowledge their hurt and I can appreciate why they do not wish to educate others on their feelings and their reality.
It was only three years ago that the university updated Policy C.11, which involved thorough discussion, and debate, involving our three governance groups (Student Government, Academic Senate, and Staff Council). The outcome was that the importance of free speech was recognized as a cornerstone and core value of RIT, as it is at nearly every university in the nation. It was recognized that there are many instances in our nation’s history when our moral compass was pointed in the right direction only because of the First Amendment.
As I stated in my earlier message, colleges and universities are, and must be, settings for open and respectful discussion of controversial issues. We comprise a learning community, and much of our learning comes from one another. It is my belief that a willingness to hear different ideas and opinions, even when we strongly disagree, must be a bedrock of our campus community. Accordingly, when we come back together in the fall, and can have face-to-face conversation, I plan that we will conduct one or more forums where we can explore free speech, civil discourse, and how we can best approach controversial topics. These conversations will be challenging, but I believe they are necessary.
Furthermore, I recommend that Student Government consider amending its Bylaws to provide for facilitated resolution of differences among student senators and incorporation of sanctions that fall short of impeachment. In the meantime, I would be happy to speak with any student, or group of students, prior to the end of the current semester. I offer my very best wishes to all as we safely complete the spring semester and I look forward to our upcoming in-person commencement ceremonies where we will recognize our graduating students for their stellar achievements in this most challenging time.