Earlier this afternoon the University of Oklahoma announced via Twitter that two students who had played “a leadership role in the singing of a racist chant” at a fraternity event had been expelled from OU by university president David Boren. This unilateral move struck me (and others) as surprising, and as a likely violation of the students’ rights to due process under university regulations.
It turns out we were right to be skeptical. The students haven’t been expelled.
Although the press release attached to his tweet declared that Boren had “expelled” the students, the tweet itself said only that he had “acted to expel” them, and an “expulsion” letter was even less definitive.
In a copy of one student’s expulsion letter obtained by Gawker, Boren declared not that the student had been expelled but that he “should be” and “will be.” If the student wishes to fight Boren’s decision to expel him, the letter indicates, he must notify the university by the end of this week, at which point a meeting will be scheduled on the subject. (Gawker got the letter from a tweet, by the way, but it’s since been published by Oklahoma media sources. It appears to be legit.)
It’s not clear how the process Boren describes relates to the procedures established in OU’s Student Rights and Responsibilities Code — the deadlines and schedule laid out in the letter don’t appear to conform to those set down in the code. But it is clear from the letter that Boren has not unilaterally expelled the students, and that if they do not choose to withdraw from the university their case will be handled according to some sort of formal disciplinary process.
Update | I’ve got a hunch about what happened here.
Boren appears not to be claiming the power to expel the students unilaterally. Instead, what he seems to be doing is pressuring them to withdraw from OU. The “should be” and “will be” language could be read as rhetorical flourishes, but I think something else may be going on.
Eugene Volokh and others have argued that the students’ chant was protected under the First Amendment and that no expulsion order would stand up in court. Given that, the best-case scenario from the university’s perspective would be for the students to drop out voluntarily. If the world can be convinced they were expelled, so much the better.
To put it another way, Boren has no power to expel the students, but if they don’t object to being expelled that doesn’t matter. If he says “you’re expelled unless you file a letter by Friday” and they don’t fire a letter by Friday, they’ve essentially been expelled by mutual consent.
We’ll know by the end of the week whether the students intend to contest the expulsion proceedings. If they do, things could get awkward for Boren.
Second Update | Here’s something interesting. While an earlier version of the post claimed that Boren doesn’t have the power to expel students on his own, that may have been a hasty conclusion.
While the student code does not provide for unilateral expulsion by the president, the OU regulations for complaints under the university’s nondiscrimination policy provide that “the University Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students or other appropriate persons in authority may take immediate administrative or disciplinary action deemed necessary for the welfare or safety of the University community.”
Complaints about violations of the nondiscrimination policy are handled by the OU Equal Opportunity Officer. In his letter today, Boren directed the students facing expulsion to notify the EOO if they wished to contest the decision. Given all that, and given the fact that Boren’s letter charged the students with creating a “hostile educational environment” — a term of art in nondiscrimination law — it looks like we know what OU’s legal/disciplinary strategy is.
Third Update | Parker Rice, the first of the SAE students publicly identified, has withdrawn from OU. No word yet on whether Levi Petitt, the other student facing expulsion, intends to contest the decision.