Open Letter to Student Senate

Matthew Kendrick, College senior, Honor Committee Co-Chair

Dear Senators,

I, Matthew Kendrick, am solely responsible for the content of this letter. The letter in no way represents, reflects or summarizes the opinions of the Student Honor Committee, any of its other members, the Office of the Dean of Students or its employees, the faculty and administration of Oberlin College or any other individual, institution or entity whatsoever.

I hesitate to involve myself with campus politics, but I would like to spread awareness about a situation the Student Honor Committee has found itself in within the past week. Many of you may know that currently we are extremely low on numbers, and after a desperate recruiting effort last semester, we managed to attract seven promising candidates. I would like to point out that we advertised open positions on the committee via multiple mass emails to the student body and to each individual academic department, as well as on Blackboard. Furthermore, we asked professors to nominate promising candidates personally so that we might contact them directly. Theoretically, we should have reached every student on campus — nearly 3,000 individuals — but our final yield in terms of applications was only seven. We interviewed these candidates rigorously and found each of them to be promising individuals who we expect would make fine committee members. We duly passed the applications on to Student Senate, who, in the past, has granted us at the SHC considerable freedom in selecting our own membership and traditionally approved or denied candidates based on their applications and the SHC’s commentary. I personally feel sincere gratitude to those past senators who placed such trust in us.

However, in the plenary session of the Student Senate on March 2, certain senators insisted upon re-interviewing our candidates. A recording of the plenary session can be found here: I sympathize with the rationale for doing so; our campus needs more diversity in its government and faculty, and Honor Committee is no exception. However, I object to their conclusions on three fronts. The first is that Honor Committee is not a political institution; rather, it seeks to educate. The grand majority of cases we see arise from mistakes and misunderstandings. We endeavor to clarify Oberlin’s expectations of students vis-à-vis the Honor Code before, during and after the hearing, regardless of whether we find a student responsible for violating the Honor Code. Only in the most severe cases of repeat offenses or egregious and premeditated violations do we even consider punitive sanctions. We have no control over who is reported and no choice but to proceed with a hearing once an individual is in our system. Our first priority is ensuring everyone we see has a fair experience and that everyone is as comfortable as it is possible to be when facing charges of academic dishonesty. Though institutional prejudice and discrimination certainly exist at Oberlin and in the United States as a whole, and I support the effort to reform our community for the better, I believe that if the Student Honor Committee in any way contributes to said prejudices and discriminations, this is a reflection of the Oberlin administration as a whole and not the direct responsibility of the Honor Committee or its members.

The second basis for my complaint is the history of diversity within the Honor Committee. When I joined in 2011, SHC was led by a transgender individual and counted many women and people of color among its staff. I myself am Jewish and have family ties to Latin America, mostly in Mexico and Chile, where I grew up. During the 2012–2013 school year, we were led by an African-American woman and maintained the same diversity among our members. During the entirety of my involvement in SHC, we have been supervised by Associate Dean of Students Kimberly Jackson Davidson, a woman of color herself. Unfortunately, recruitment has been low for years, and a combination of graduations and withdrawals from the Committee left us with only six members this academic year: three men and three women, with only one woman of color remaining on the committee. Needless to say, this is an unfortunate situation; one we hoped to remedy with the aforementioned recruitment drive. I cannot speak to the ethnic or gender identities of our candidates, nor any factor within their persons that may contribute to diversity on the committee, because no one asked these kinds of questions during the interview process. In my estimation, no such factor would determine an individual’s capability to effectively carry out the work of the Honor Committee.

Which brings me to my final point: We need to get to work. Ideally, our committee would contain at least 20 members. We have six. We are months behind on cases, and every day that goes by is another day that a student is unsure of whether they made a mistake and unsure of how to change their academic practices in the future or whether they can simply put this ugly business behind them. I feel personally responsible for the burden laid on students because of these delays. Having seven new members would quite literally double our processing speed and alleviate the situation. Furthermore, all six current members of the committee are graduating seniors. If we don’t get new members practical experience on the job soon, the institutional memory of SHC will leave Oberlin with us. The Honor Code is an integral part of the academic environment at Oberlin, and the manner of its enforcement plays a much larger role in maintaining the friendly, collaborative atmosphere here than most students realize. Handing over control of the Honor System to students without enough experience or the accumulated wisdom of past years could trigger an undesirable change in our campus.

In conclusion, I strongly object to Student Senate’s heavy-handed approach to Honor Committee appointments and to the politicization of our organization. I ask that the planned interviews with candidates be either fast-tracked or waived completely, so that we can begin training as soon as possible and hopefully send Senate a second round of candidates before the end of the year. I count many of this year’s senators among my friends and acquaintances, and I hope that whatever trust you might have in my judgment might be extended to the rest of the committee as well. Please help us improve an unsatisfactory situation on the Honor Committee by breathing new life into it.