Our Highest Priority
By Michael J. Graham, S.J.
Emily and Matthew arrived on campus on Aug. 24. Those two names are the most common among the 1,060 young men and women who make up the Class of 2016. More than 11,000 students applied to Xavier this year, a record number for us. And we had to whittle it down to just under 1,100 of the best, the brightest and those with heart-warming potential. In what is now a marked trend, women outnumber men in our current freshmen class, 54 percent to 46 percent. Nearly one-quarter of them are first generation college students and a little more than 22 percent are students of color.
These young men and women grew up texting, clicking and browsing. They get information instantaneously and can be in touch with the folks back home as they walk to class or to the dining hall. Their campus life and coming of age experience is vastly different from the one I, and most of you, experienced.
And while living in the digital age can shape the way students live, learn and interact with others in positive ways, there are also less appealing aspects—texting while driving, cyberbullying, privacy—each of which contribute to the long list of parental concerns as they send their children off to college. That’s why no matter the decade, first and foremost, Xavier has always been a Jesuit institution with a primary responsibility to provide our students a University experience in a safe and nurturing environment with the expectation of “a better education for a better world.”
One of the ways we ensure this safe and nurturing environment is through our Code of Student Conduct. Before we unload their boxes at Manresa, every student must commit to abiding by this Code. We make it clear that we will not tolerate serious violations of the Code.
Which brings me to a situation that landed Xavier in the national spotlight recently. Simply put, over the summer the University Conduct Board, as mandated by the Code of Student Conduct, heard a complaint and issued a ruling that resulted in the expulsion of Dez Wells, a popular and talented student and member of the Xavier basketball team. But there is nothing simple about this case. There is nothing simple about the impact it has had on the lives of many people. There is nothing simple about the publicity it has generated.
The University has always been, and will continue to be, very careful to protect the privacy of our students in regard to sharing the details of this or any situation that involves student conduct. The cases that are presented to the University Conduct Board are nearly always confidential and we take that obligation seriously.
As a basketball player, Mr. Wells carried a higher profile on campus than a typical student whose presence may not be missed or questioned by the media, the public or basketball fans. The decision to expel was announced by the University, but the offense for which Mr. Wells was found responsible was not.
Unfortunately, others outside the University chose to speak publicly through traditional and social media. That public dialogue resulted in salacious and false statements that have been extremely hurtful and harmful to Xavier, but, more importantly, to the students involved.
The public discussion also confused the boundaries between federal law, specifically Title IX, and the criminal justice system. You should know that we don’t get to pick which rules we follow in regard to Title IX. It applies to every college and university in the country. Federal regulations state, “...a law enforcement investigation does not relieve the school of its independent Title IX obligation to investigate the conduct.” It goes on to say that on-campus conduct may result in action “even if the police do not have sufficient evidence of a criminal violation.”
Title IX requires all schools to have a process to conduct fact-finding and recommend sanctions related to student conduct. The Xavier University Conduct Board is made up of University students, faculty and administrators, and this is the standard university model. Serving on the Board requires extensive and ongoing training in the law, the Student Code of Conduct and board procedures. The process allows students to exhaustively present their positions and evidence and hear from witnesses if applicable. It also allows students “found responsible” to appeal the finding.
Some have also confused this specific case with the recent Department of Education inquiry. Xavier recently entered into a Resolution Agreement with the DOE/Office of Civil Rights after an investigation occurred when three students complained that Xavier had not followed our procedures or the law. The Department of Education investigation concluded with no finding of wrongdoing against Xavier. Nothing in the DOE/OCR Resolution Agreement dictated or influenced the decisions reached in the Wells matter.
Unfortunately, serious violations of student codes of conduct are all-too-common on university campuses throughout the U.S. Along with a quality Jesuit education, the safety and care of students is our highest priority at Xavier. We will always be vigilant as a campus community with regard to meeting that priority. Going forward, we will continue to challenge ourselves to find ways to best protect all of our students, ensure a fair and just resolution process and, when necessary, help students heal.
Every student at Xavier is subject to the same care and protection, but also the same consequences, and serious violations of our Code will not be tolerated. It’s a promise we make to our students, their parents and our tradition as a university grounded in the Jesuit Catholic tradition.
I hope that commitment gives Emily and Matthew’s parents—and the parents of every Xavier student—one less thing to worry about.