Brendan W. Clark ’21 and Daniel J. Nesbitt ’22
Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor
Quod vanum et inutile est, lex non requirit, “the law does not require what is vain and useless,” or so the maxim goes. For Trinity College, on matters of enforcing its new “Community Contract” that students have or will find themselves soon beholden to, it seems that vanity and uselessness shall come to be the guiding principles of administrative enforcement this fall.
Trinity’s “Community Contract” will permit the College to “if needed…follow procedures outlined in the student handbook” to enforce disciplinary action on students. How, though, will students know what potential violations and acts may constitute disciplinary procedures? When the potential for punishment runs the gamut from “parental notification” to expulsion, one would expect that students should be duly apprised of the penalties of the “law” on this campus for their actions.
For instance, does a single case of forgetting a mask have the potential to result in disciplinary consequences? Will students be punished for meeting their significant other in a dorm that they do not live in? The possibilities for punishment are seemingly endless.
The Tripod sought clarity from the newly promoted Dean of Campus Life and Vice President for Student Affairs Joe DiChristina. Specifically, we sought to understand whether “any and all violations of the Student Responsibility Agreement have the potential to move to disciplinary proceedings?” The one sentence response we received: “the college is certainly able to follow-up on any possible violations of the community contract and the college will as issues arise. joe [sic].”
Ignorance of the law, then, seems a valid defense at Trinity this fall. Students are left without knowledge of when an act may move to disciplinary action. They have no defense if action is taken and sanctions zealously doled out, nor do they have an outline to point to in an effort to contest proceedings. Arbitrary and capricious enforcement, subject to the whims of whichever dean catches you, seems to be the inevitable outcome of this “any possible violations” policy.
Why Trinity cannot attach specific violations to punishments, or at least speculate as much, is difficult to comprehend. For other types of student behavior, clear expectations have been enumerated in the Student Handbook and possible disciplinary actions are delineated for all to review. Why can the same not be applied during a time of crisis—when, to quote the Community Contract, “there is little room for error in the face of this unforgiving virus.” Specificity should be the expectation.
In addition, it remains ambiguous whether this Community Contract functions as a binding agreement that students must follow or a simple set of recommendations that Trinity is asking students to voluntarily follow. For example, the Community Contract states that students “may not travel (leave campus or leave [their] off-campus housing) for non-essential reasons at any time.” However, DiChristina himself confirmed to us that the College “do[es] not have a legal basis” to restrict student travel, and that the College is simply “asking students to focus on the health and safety of our community.” Is this “Contract” really a contract or just a set of recommendations and requests?
While Trinity’s disciplinary processes may not function as a court, it certainly seems as if the law has been suspended. A case of habeas corpus à la Lincoln? Perhaps a step too far, but students should be duly apprised to when sanctions will be imposed and when incidents will arise to the level of disciplinary action. That’s the least they can expect for $75,000 a year amid the risks of a pandemic-ridden world. Trinity students should not stand for this administrative jiggery-pokery.
And, surely, the answer to that complex question of punishment and sanction merits more than a sentence response that, in effect, defines enforcement at Trinity in one word: “arbitrary.”