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Genuine Conduct Conversations

Region IV-W
April 15, 2020 Will Cooper Arkansas Tech University

Implementing and enforcing an integrity-based student conduct process on a college campus can often feel like a herculean task.  Colleges and universities strive to cultivate safe educational spaces for community members and provide due process for students alleged to have violated policies. We all hope to lead our students to principled decision-making through prevention education initiatives, but inevitably students make mistakes.  Individual conduct advisors are crucial to the process.  In my near decade of working as a student conduct professional, I have deduced that genuine and honest one-to-one conversations with students alleged to have violated policies matter and can make all the difference in student retention and success.

The conduct advisor is uniquely positioned to have a positive intervention.  They often have a tool other campus entities lack, leverage.  The student is often required to meet with their conduct advisor in order to adjudicate the case.  With the right approach to the meeting, the conduct advisor is capable of getting to the root issue that led to the student violating the policy in the first place.  The appropriately navigated meeting can connect the student to invaluable campus resources, reduce future issues for the student and conduct staff, engage the student, and build rapport. 

Several years ago, I met with a freshman who violated the alcohol policy on campus. The student had a ton of potential, but lacked any motivation.  Before even mentioning the policy violation, we discussed how things were going.  The student quickly let their guard down and began to discuss some of the obstacles they had faced since arriving on campus.  The student was not attending class, having disagreements with their roommate, and uncertain about their major choice.  I was able to offer some practical solutions for the roommate issue, make an academic tutoring referral, and facilitate a meeting with their academic advisor to discuss their major before we even breached the topic of the violation.  I believe the student sensed that I was coming from a place of care and was appreciative.  This approach eased the tension that often accompanies accountability discussions. 

Ultimately, the student accepted responsibility for violating the policy and received an educational sanction and period of probation.  After the meeting, the student stopped at my office door and said, “That wasn’t as bad as I expected.” While not a glowing compliment, the comment resonated with me and fundamentally changed my approach to conduct meetings.  The same student sought me out a year later and inquired about serving on the student conduct board.  I was reluctant at first considering the conduct history, but decided to give the student an opportunity to serve since the disciplinary probation was complete.  The student quickly became a valued board member and served the remainder of their undergraduate career.

At my institution, we rely on graduate assistants to serve as conduct advisors on less severe policy violations.  I believe it is extremely beneficial to graduate assistants in developing conflict resolution skills they will use throughout their careers.  The graduate assistants are often extremely nervous and apprehensive about conducting the meetings at first.  My team and I discovered right away that it was important to allow the graduate assistants to observe seasoned conduct professionals facilitate those meetings and then set second-chair with them during meetings before assigning them their own cases.  We developed the initially dubbed “Conduct Buddy Program” but graduate assistants quickly let us know the name was hokey.  We settled on the “Conduct Mentor Program” and assign each graduate assistant to a seasoned conduct professional.  I believe it has been beneficial to students who violate policies, graduate assistants who get the experience, and conduct professionals who get to teach.  After observing preliminary conferences with experienced staff, the graduate assistants seem more comfortable and confident in their own meetings with students. Conduct professionals have reported enjoying having the graduate assistants check their work and keep them honest.  Most importantly, students receive due process, are connected to appropriate resources, and hopefully become more engaged.