The Hearing Advisor Program:Who are the hearing advisors and what are their roles?

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Leslie Yevak

For students, finding out they’ve been accused of an honor violation might be as terrifying as learning that they’re facing criminal charges. To ensure no one goes through the process alone, Washington and Lee Hearing Advisors, formerly called Honor Advocates, work as a supportive force for the accused students. But despite their critical role in the Honor System, few students are aware of the full role of hearing advisors.

Hearing advisors assist students accused of an honor or conduct violation in preparing and presenting cases to the respective judicial board.

Many students are familiar with parts of the advisors’ roles in honor violations, which are heard by the Executive Committee. But few students are aware that hearing advisors also represent students in front of the Student-Faculty Hearing Board, which sees cases on sexual misconduct, as well as the Student Judicial Council, which takes up student misconduct issues that do not fall under the EC’s jurisdiction.

When a potential honor violation is reported to the EC, one advisor is assigned to an investigative team with a member of the EC and a student picked from the student body. The EC evaluates the team’s findings and determines whether the case warrants a closed hearing.

It is in a closed EC hearing that the accused student is assigned a hearing advisor to assist him or her in the trial. If the student is found guilty, the student chooses to accept the verdict and withdraw, or to appeal in an open student body hearing.

In the case of an open student body hearing, the initial advisor continues to support the student, but another experienced advisor joins the team to offer a fresh perspective, according to Assistant Head Hearing Advisor Bren Flanigan, ’16.

In preparation for a closed or open hearing, the advisor looks through the investigative report with the student to see if any crucial perspectives are missing, Flanigan said. Advisors also work with the accused student to draft opening and closing statements, practice questions they anticipate the EC might ask, and discuss whether they need to call witnesses to testify.

New Name, Same Game

The program’s name was changed after a White Book review process in Winter 2015 eliminated the term “honor advocate.” The change officially went into effect in Fall 2015.

Hearing Advisor Bob Shinehouse, ’16, said despite the name change, the difference in title does not reflect any adjustment to the students’ responsibilities.

“It’s a necessary change, but I don’t think it changes anything about the program itself.”

Shinehouse said the tasks that come with serving an accused student during the complicated and often stressful process of confronting an allegation of an honor violation traverse the duties of both an advocate and an advisor.

“Whichever student you get assigned to, it’s part of your job to believe their case, and to present it as best you can,” Shinehouse said. “Therefore it’s impossible to not be an advocate as well, or else you’re not doing your job properly.”

Flanigan said advisors must know how to properly and effectively balance their roles.

“It kind of falls between an attorney, at one end of the spectrum, and a guidance counselor at the other,” he said. “You kind of have to just oscillate between those two, and know when to draw on each different situation.”

But Flanigan said that while advisors may sometimes mimic the role of an attorney, it is important for students to understand that at the end of the day, hearing advisors are not meant to serve as defense attorneys.

“Your job is to advise the student on how to present their own case,” Flanigan said.

Advisor responsibilities extend beyond assisting accused students to helping anyone in the student body who may have questions on how to file charges, or whether something constitutes an honor violation, Flanigan said.

“We’re also a resource for understanding [the program], for anyone who has a question,” Flanigan said.

Advisors take on a similar role when it comes to the SJC and the SFHB, though there are a few notable differences. In SJC cases, advisors are optional, and the accused student must request one, Flanigan said. If an advisor is requested, he or she carries the same responsibilities as in an EC case.

How It Works

In cases taken up by the SFHB, which is composed of four students and four faculty members, one advisor is involved with the investigation process, and a new advisor is assigned to the hearing. Flanigan said the SFHB advisor does not speak during the hearing, but advises the student during breaks throughout the hearing.

No matter the judicial board, advisors may not work with students they know on a personal level and must comply with confidentiality standards stated in the White Book.

Advisors are prohibited from discussing details of an investigation, or an accused student’s case, with anyone not involved in the process. If assigned to an open student body hearing, advisors cannot discuss details of the hearing with anyone other than those directly involved in the case. Students attending the hearing cannot discuss their knowledge of the case with anyone outside the university community.

“We’re doing a lot of important work that we will never be able to tell anyone about, so that’s an interesting experience in itself,” Shinehouse said.

Flanigan joined the hearing advisor program in October 2013, and the EC appointed him to serve as assistant head of the program last year.

Similar to the Honor System itself, the application process for the hearing advisor program evolves over time and is dependent on what the leadership is looking for, Flanigan said.

Paul Judge, ‘16L,  currently holds the role of head advisor, a position reserved for a third-year law student that changes each year.

Shinehouse said his experience as a university hearing advisor has been extremely gratifying.

“But it also kind of taught me to…find value in every argument, and really this not black and white view of everything, which I think is extremely important to have,” Shinehouse said.

Just as the EC represents both the undergraduate and law student populations, the hearing advisor program consists of students from both schools as well. This means in closed or open trials, an accused undergraduate student could be paired with a hearing advisor from the law school, and vice versa.

“I don’t know what they do”

The details of the hearing advisor program and its responsibilities are outlined in the White Book. First-year students sign a pledge to abide by the guidelines outlined in the Honor System’s governing document after a dramatic speech by the EC president during orientation week.

Jennifer Heibig, ‘16, said she felt intimidated as a first-year student in Lee Chapel, listening to the EC president lay out the rules of the Honor System stated in the White Book.

“I think they make it seem really scary, and I think that’s kind of what they want the freshmen to feel,” Heibig said.

Shinehouse said he thinks this initial talk to first-year students should be an explanatory discussion, rather than an intimidation tactic, which he said leads to widespread confusion and misunderstanding when it comes to the Honor System.

“The longer I’ve seen the system, and the more individual people I’ve talked to, and the more experience I’ve had in the system, I’ve realized that there’s a lot of nuances that the general population is not aware of,” Shinehouse said.

And the hearing advisor program may be one of those nuances. Heibig said her understanding of an advisor’s role is pretty unclear.

“Is it their responsibility to put together a case, or is it more the student’s responsibility to defend themselves?” Heibig said. “I’m not sure if they’re just representing what the student wants, or if they sort of flesh it all together for the student. I don’t know what they do.”

Flanigan said he thinks the issue might be one of publicity. While posters of information regarding the SJC and EC are pinned on the Café 77 bulletin board, few other resources are provided in explaining the duties of the advising program.

Shinehouse said student body hearings seemed like a myth when he arrived to W&L as a first-year in 2012.

Yet, in an uptick from years past, there have been three student body hearings since Fall 2014: There were two student body hearings during the 2014-2015 academic year and as of March 1, one student body hearing during the 2015-2016 academic year. None of these students successfully appealed their guilty verdicts.

Heibig said she was also surprised to witness multiple student body hearings in her three and a half years at W&L.

“It seem[ed] like a secretive process that is never really brought forth to the student body,” Heibig said.

But Shinehouse said he thinks the frequency in student body hearings is a quickly fading trend.

“Now, as people realize it’s really tough to go up there against the EC and win, I think eventually it’ll die down.”