Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Due process on campus

In 2016, Thomas Klocke was a business student at the University of Texas at Arlington.  On May 19 of that year, Klocke found himself seated next to Nick Watson, a fellow student, in one of the last classes Klocke needed to take to earn his degree.

What happened that day is in dispute.

According to Klocke's account, Watson told Klocke that he thought Klocke was beautiful.  Using his open laptop, Klocke says he typed "Stop it--I'm straight."  Watson responded on his laptop, "I'm gay."  As the class proceeded, Watson allegedly continued to glance at Klocke, who rebuffed the advances, asked Watson to leave, and eventually took another seat across the room. 

Watson's account differs significantly.  He claims that after he made a comment about privilege in today's society, Klocke opened his laptop and typed "gays should die" into the browser bar.  Watson then responded with "I'm gay."  He claims that Klocke then feigned a yawn, then stated, "well, then you're a faggot."  Watson says that he asked Klocke to leave, and that Klocke responded by saying "you should consider killing yourself."

Watson complained, first to the professor, then to a staff member in the UTA student services office.  Student Services responded by banning Klocke from attending the remaining sessions of the class and from contacting the professor or any student in the class, which resulted in his failing the final exam and the class, and in turn prevented him from graduating on schedule.  Klocke was not afforded a hearing before he was disciplined, nor any accommodation for his class attendance such as videotaping of the lectures.

Faced with academic and potential financial ruin, Klocke killed himself two weeks after the incident.

His estate is suing UTA for civil rights violations and Watson for defamation.  A copy of the complaint can be found here.

I have no dog in this fight.  I have no connection to UTA.  I didn't know Thomas Klocke or Nick Watson.  I'm not a college administrator.  I don't even have kids.  But something about this story bothers me on a deep level.

It's difficult to know what went on that day.  It's possible that Klocke harbored extreme animosity toward homosexuals.  It's also possible that Watson felt jilted by a boy he liked and decided to do what he could to ruin that boy's life.  I don't know what's true, and I'm not sure that it matters to what I'm writing about.

We are engaged in an increasingly politicized struggle over how colleges manage the interpersonal relationships of their students--not merely sexual matters, but also political conflict, free speech issues, and the discomfort that arises when young people encounter views that challenge them.  Free speech in particular is a core value of the traditional university culture, but as our society has become more polarized, and as conservatives in particular have become more radical in both the messages they push and the icons they uplift, there has been a backlash against certain types of speech that are deemed hateful, misogynistic, or otherwise not in keeping with other values that universities wish to uphold.

Sexual harassment (together with more aggressive forms of sexual violence, up to and including rape) is a hot-button issue on campuses these days.  A series of incidents of sexual violence allegedly perpetrated by male athletes at Baylor University came to head last year and cost the popular and successful head football coach, Art Briles, and the prominent university president, Kenneth Starr, their jobs.  By contrast, allegations in a 2014 Rolling Stone article regarding fraternity rape culture at the University of Virginia had to be retracted when they turned out to be based on a fabrication.

When a person accuses another person of sexual misconduct, be it harassment or rape or anything in between, the allegations should be taken seriously.  Steps should be taken to protect people from sexual violence or harassment.  Colleges and universities have a special obligation to intervene to provide this kind of protection because even though their students are adults, physically and chronologically, they often lack sufficient experience and emotional maturity to take steps to protect themselves.

But because these matters can often turn on issues of credibility in a he-said, she-said (or he-said, he-said, as in the case of Watson and Klocke) scenario, when either party could be lying, how can we responsibly administer discipline or other countermeasures to protect victims, when those countermeasures can have the effect of damaging the academic, financial, or emotional standing of the alleged perpetrator?

There are no easy answers--or, at least, the easy answers are unsatisfying.  In a macro sense, sexual violence on campus is intolerably prevalent.  But in particular cases it can be difficult to know whether a specific rape actually occurred.  While I am unapologetically feminist in my outlook, I do not think it does women any favors when a man has his life destroyed by a false allegation, acted on capriciously by a university that's desperate to be seen as being tough on sexual violence.  (I also don't think it does men any favors when a woman has her life destroyed by the double victimization of rape in the first instance and a justice system, be it criminal or university-based, that devalues her.)  We need both:  more vigorous efforts to control and eliminate campus sexual violence, and a greater degree of certainty of guilt before discipline is imposed.  These concepts work at cross-purposes to some extent because in most cases we can't have perfect knowledge.

Nevertheless, I believe that what happened at UTA can teach us something important about how to deal with these situations.  It seems unlikely that what happened was the sole cause of Klocke's suicide; suicide is rarely the result of a single negative cause, and there were almost certainly underlying factors in this case that cause Klocke to end his life.

But the imposition of discipline without a hearing, particularly by a state-run institution, is troubling at best.  And the failure to provide Klocke with accommodations that would allow him to finish out the class seems extremely short-sighted and indicative of an effort to punish Klocke for expressing an unpopular, even hateful, view.  As abhorrent as I find his casual, cutting use of a sexual slur and his suggestion that Watson should kill himself to be (if he even said those things), I also believe that the remedy for speech you don't like is speech that you do like.  Disciplining Klocke under those circumstances seems arbitrary and well outside the bounds of appropriate handling by the university.

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