Any freshman who matriculated this past month at Emerson College might have found in the current Student Handbook a list of student responsibilities, which set forth the conduct expected of the academic community. But returning Emerson students turning to that same page would have found a glaring omission, since the “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities” published in the 2006–2007 (and earlier) editions of the handbook had suddenly morphed into the current “Statement of Responsibilities.”
What happened, the returning students might ask, to the student bill of rights? Do students at Emerson now have responsibilities without having any rights? Who at Emerson made such a reckless and wholesale use of the “delete” key? And why?
That’s what Ashley Porter, a student reporter for the Emerson College student news organization EIV, sought to find out when she noted the disparity between the prior Student Handbook and the current edited version. Whoever prepared the new handbook for printing had excised the entire list of nine rights previously guaranteed to all students, including due process in disciplinary hearings, the right to be free from discrimination, the guarantee of privacy, and, most notable, a broad panoply of rights modeled after the United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights (speech, press, political belief and affiliation, peaceful assembly, and the right to petition for redress of grievances). An archived copy of last year’s handbook, saved for posterity on the third-party Web site Internet Archive (archive.org), outlined the surgery.
Porter tells the Phoenix that when she confronted Ronald Ludman, Emerson’s dean of students, he at first denied that the rights were removed from the handbook. Then, after being shown the irrefutable side-by-side evidence, Ludman acknowledged that the change had occurred, but, according to Porter, explained that “it was inappropriate for us to have them all written. . . . The handbook was changed to reflect the obligations of citizenship that the students take on once they become members of this community.”
Ludman notably failed to explain why it was “inappropriate” for students at a liberal-arts college, ostensibly devoted to academic freedom and liberal education, to be guaranteed rights taken for granted outside of the ivy walls. (While we’re on the subject of colleges as forums for open, intellectual debate, whatever became of the idea that the college campus is supposed to be the most, rather than the least, free place in our society?)
What happened next is the stuff of parody. Rebuffed by the administration, Porter turned to the new president of Emerson’s Board of Trustees, Peter Meade, who directed Porter to raise her questions with the administration — as she had already done. A few days later, Ludman informed Porter that, lo and behold, the enumerated rights had been “unintentionally edited out” and were being reinstated, with some revisions. Notably, the college added language protecting students from discrimination based on veteran status and gender identity. But it removed the right to due process, replacing it with a guarantee of a “fair disciplinary hearing” (thus avoiding having to accord all of the procedural rights guaranteed by the Constitution).