Universities aren’t at fault when their students are assholes

By in Opinions

Queen’s University is investigating a racist costume party held by students after photos from the event made the rounds of social media and news outlets. While this behavior warrants consequences, their university should not be the institution to deliver them.

The Nov. 9, 2016 party, held in an off-campus residential neighbourhood, hosted attendees dressed as various forms of offensive cultural stereotypes and gained notoriety after comedian Celeste Yim found and shared photos on Twitter to raise outcry. Queen’s is currently investigating the incident and CBC reports that while the event happened off campus, students may be punished for violating their student code of conduct.

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Universities should not take off-campus matters into their own hands.

The aforementioned code dictates that students are “expected to adhere to and promote the university’s core values of honesty, trust, fairness, respect and personal responsibility in all aspects of university life, academic and non-academic.” It can also apply to offenses in which the university is not involved if they are perceived to be bad for its reputation.

I understand the reason universities have and need codes of conduct. Universities should be places where people understand they are safe and respected, and having a code of conduct that mandates this is a way of controlling how people behave at school.

That said, considering punishment for an off-campus incident seems like an overreach of authority. While the party may in fact be outside of Queen’s’ jurisdiction, Toronto-based civil litigator Greg Ko suggests that schools essentially dictate how far they want their authority to extend in matters like this.

In my mind, the fact that a bunch of university students chose to dress up in such tasteless costumes does not offer a reflection of their institution whatsoever. It just makes them looks stupid.

To use this party as one specific example, if you make it to university and don’t see a problem in dressing like the Viet Cong or Mexicans in orange jumpsuits, your upbringing — in my humble opinion — was partially a failure.

If you don’t have qualms about letting people take pictures of you in that kind of getup and posting them to Facebook, the scores of people who have lost their jobs due to social media gaffes have either not made an impression on you or flown right over your entitled head.

If it takes a comedian to explain to you that you did a bad thing, at the end of the day you’ll probably only feel bad that you got in trouble for it and not actually regret what you did.

Still, while Queen’s debates taking disciplinary action, I find myself wondering why they have any authority to do so. I hate to be the person saying this, but when compared to academic penalty or disciplinary action, I truly do believe the social media fall-out and shame these students have brought upon themselves is a more fitting and just punishment for what they did.

It’s not the school’s place to punish you because of that. When a school is trying to force a code of morals and ethics on kids outside of the classroom and campus, there’s a risk of the university becoming — and I hate using this word — tyrannical.

Calgary lawyer Timothy Boyle, who has successfully defended students against these kinds of university over-reaches in the past, agrees, noting that as charter-free zones, “universities are free to do whatever they want. If they want to limit freedom, they can limit freedoms.”

I won’t argue that post-secondary institutions set out in huge numbers to limit the freedoms of students, nor would I argue that student should feel free to act the way the Queen’s students did without risk of negative consequences, but when universities try to overstep their boundaries and take disciplinary measures in matters outside of their control, they should be called out over it.

While I can’t predict what the outcome of this debacle will be, my only hope is that it’s one in which Queen’s understands how little say it should have in the matter.

Zach Tennent / Opinions Editor

Photo: Jeremy Britz / Photo Editor