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Getting to Know Students Beyond Alleged Policy Violations




By Diana Morris, Vanderbilt University Compliance Coordinator

“So [insert name here], tell me a little bit about yourself – where is home for you, why Vanderbilt, why Nashville?”
 
And so begins my conversations with students accused of violating university policy.
By Diana Morris, Vanderbilt University Compliance Coordinator

“So [insert name here], tell me a little bit about yourself – where is home for you, why Vanderbilt, why Nashville?”
 
And so begins my conversations with students accused of violating university policy.
 
As a hearing officer, my office is not one people usually visit with excitement. For many students, the notion of making mistakes is jarring, as is being held accountable for them. With this in mind, from the moment I greet a student in our waiting room to the minute I walk them into my office and close the door, I quickly try to identify the emotion(s) they're bringing into the meeting and to shift the energy so we can honestly and critically review their actions and determine what happens next.
 
With these prompts as an introduction, students inform me and remind themselves about who they are in- and outside of the classroom and why they chose to join our community. Some students use this opportunity to talk about their family and have shared that they're one of many to attend Vanderbilt or that they are the first to attend college. Some discuss their campus involvement while others highlight their post-graduation career goals. Whatever the story, these details help create a bridge between what could be viewed as an isolated incident and what students define as their values, interests, and aspirations.
 
The best example of the potential of this approach is my meeting with John*. As we reviewed the incident and alleged policy violations and he shared his side of the story, it quickly became apparent that, although John initially denied any involvement, he was in fact responsible. When asked about his contradictory statements, John sheepishly admitted that, because he had been in our office for academic reasons the previous semester, he did not want to get in trouble again.
 
In hearing this, I could have simply explained that academic and non-academic policy violations are reviewed separately, discussed the impact of the violations on the greater community, and ended the meeting with an outline of his sanctions. However, that would only be punitive and a developmental opportunity would be lost. By eventually admitting wrongdoing and inadvertently revealing that he hadn't quite figured out how to stand by his actions and their consequences, John opened the door to a more in-depth conversation about accountability and integrity. Based on our introduction, I knew that John's interest in Vanderbilt stemmed from the fond memories his grandfather shared about his time here and that John ultimately wants to become a neurosurgeon. This information allowed me to facilitate John's reflection about his decision-making and how it did or did not align with his values.
 
For John and many of our students, the incidents that bring them into our office – and those we don't know about – are separate from the person they believe they are and the person they want to be. By asking students to define themselves and their motivations right before we speak about the actions that prompted our meeting, it connects these two realities into one space and time. When I ask students to tell me about themselves, I'm really inviting them to outline the ideal version of who they are so they can reflect on what it takes to push that self to the side, to give name to the values they embraced or neglected during an incident, and to think critically about whether or not the person outlined in a report is a person they're comfortable with.
 
As with everything, context matters and this is by no means a universal approach. There are some meetings where I skip this introduction and others where a student is unable to connect short-term behavior with long-term impact. The appropriateness and success of this approach depends entirely on the nature of the incident being discussed and a student's development, but on the whole, taking the time to get to know a student and how they see themselves outside of alleged violations allows for a fruitful meeting with outcomes that extend beyond the incident and get to the core of using the conduct process as an educational tool for student development and success.
 
* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
 

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