State legislators grilled Georgia Tech’s president Monday amid complaints that the school has unfairly punished those accused of sexual assault and other wrongdoing.
Tech has been hit with a pair of lawsuits by students who were expelled after being found responsible — unfairly they say — for sexual misconduct. The state Board of Regents overruled the school this month and reinstated one of the students. Tech is also under fire for disciplining a fraternity accused of hurling racial slurs at a black female student, something the fraternity says did not happen.
The cases’ common thread: allegations that Tech failed to provide the accused students due process.
Tech President Bud Peterson’s appearance before a subcommittee that controls university funding was the first time he has publicly addressed the controversy. It comes as the state Board of Regents is crafting systemwide policies to provide uniformity at Georgia’s 29 public colleges and universities. Tech has already moved to revamp some of its policies.
State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, the panel’s chairman, blasted Tech’s policies as “Kafkaeseque” and argued they have placed taxpayers at risk by spurring costly lawsuits. He warned bluntly that schools that fail to give both sides a fair shake could see state funding cut.
“If you’ve got a bond project, if you don’t protect the students of this state with due process, don’t come looking for money. Period,” Ehrhart said.
“At Georgia Tech, we place a premium on developing students as leaders, both during their time with us on campus and after graduation. We are also fully committed to a campus environment that is inclusive and safe for our entire campus community,” Peterson told the panel.
Legislators pressed Tech repeatedly on why it takes on cases that might be criminal in nature.
“Would it not make more sense, in cases of certain behaviors that touch criminal conduct … that the University System not, and purposefully not involve itself in (investigating those cases) and get professional law enforcement to investigate,” asked Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna. “I would think this would be a relief to many administrators.”
Peterson said he did not disagree but said the matter was complex. The university disciplinary process has a lower burden of proof than criminal prosecution requires, which gives the university more leeway to take action.
One witness Monday was the mother of a student found to be have violated two Tech code sections: underage drinking and intimidation under Tech’s sexual assault policy. As a result of going through the student judicial process, she said, he now suffers from high anxiety and distrust for people.
She said the allegations against her son “rocked our world.”
She said that early in the process, Peter Paquette, who heads the school’s Office of Student Integrity, seemed to already have determined her son’s guilt.
“It seems that someone with the power to alter someone’s life forever would not wield that power recklessly,” said the woman, identified as Jane Doe.
Others also pointed to Paquette, saying he failed to interview witnesses who would back up accounts by those accused, dismissed texts and other evidence of innocence as irrelevant and, would not allow another mother into her 19-year-old son’s sexual misconduct hearing.
Paquette attended Monday’s hearing but said little.
More than a dozen members of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity sat in on the hearing Monday as well. The fraternity was hit last year with a suspension in abeyance — letting it remain on campus and recruit but banning it from Greek Week, homecoming and campus social events. A black student had claimed racial slurs were yelled to her through windows in the fraternity house. The fraternity says those windows were locked or inaccessible, video surveillance did not show the student there, and a dean predetermined the fraternity’s guilt before the investigation.
The fraternity says its members have been unfairly branded as racists. An appeal has been reopened in the case. And the school has recommended removing the “suspension in abeyance” sanction altogether.
In the fraternity case, much work was done in the early stages to determine which students were responsible for what was alleged, said John Stein, Tech’s vice president for student life and dean of students.
The investigation did not identify any individual fraternity members responsible, so in the absence of an individual, the community is held responsible, Stein said.
Legislators said such a tactic defied logic.
Last year, the state Board of Regents announced it would draw up guidelines on how schools investigate sexual misconduct. The Regents have now expanded that review to include other conduct violations.
Ehrhart said a final product is expected in the next month or so.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.