ITHACA, N.Y. — After more than four hours of opening statements, witnesses and summations, student Mitchell McBride was found not responsible for code violations he was accused of after leaking documents to The Cornell Daily Sun in February.
“This has taught me a lesson: that, people in power need to be held to account and I think that…law is the mechanism to do it,” McBride said, beaming after the decision was made. “I’m just finally glad that the code is upheld — that is the vindication.”
McBride was being accused of two violations of the Campus Code of Conduct by the university’s disciplinary body, the Judicial Administration, which operates similarly to a court of law.
McBride admitted to giving The Cornell Daily Sun documents from the Admissions and Financial Aid Working Group in February. He said he did so because officials were considering admission policies that add a preference to a student’s ability to pay for tuition, as opposed to merit-base-focused admissions.
The chair of the working group, Senior Vice Provost Barbara Knuth, said the documents were confidential. McBride maintained they were not.
McBride said during the hearing that he eventually made the unpopular choice to leak the documents to The Sun because he thought it was in the best interest of the university community.
He said, “I believe that even though it was the ostensible goal for the committee to promote fairness — the way Dean Knuth defined that to the committee was that the highest income brackets are paying too much and had too high a burden, and so that should be reduced and the burden would be transferred to poor students and so that would make the system more fair. So I believe this is not the definition of fairness the Cornell community would be in line with.”
McBride was accused of violating the following:
- Title III of the Code, which makes it a violation “To forge, fraudulently alter, willfully falsify, or otherwise misuse University or non-University documents”
- Title IV of the Code, which requires students “to comply with any lawful order of a clearly identifiable University official acting in the performance of his or her duties.”
It remains unclear what the consequences would have been if he was found responsible for the infractions, but The Cornell Daily Sun reported that a plea deal would have put McBride on disciplinary probation for three weeks; require him to write two, five-page reflection papers; and require a meeting between him and Senior Vice Provost Barbara Knuth, who also serves as dean of the Graduate School. It also would have created a disciplinary record for him, which would have remained on file until 2023.
The Sun reported that McBride feared that the six-year reprimand on his record might impact his ability to attend Georgetown Law, to which he’s been admitted.
He demanded a hearing from the University Hearing Board. The board is comprised of three students, one faculty member, and one staff member and determines whether a respondent is responsible or not responsible for committing a code infraction. The hearings are rarely public.
A Cornell public fiasco
At the “public” hearing for McBride, Cornell officials decided at the last minute to move the proceeding from Day Hall to Uris Hall.
At Uris Hall, officials set up a room accommodating 60 people, where a poor quality video feed was played for attendees, many of whom left the room in frustration, saying they could not hear the audio. The Cornell Daily Sun reported for days that more than 100 people planned to attend the hearing.
Cornell University police Investigator Sgt. Scott Grantz guarded the door, along with a man who refused to release his identification but demanded that attendees waiting for a seat in the room sign a piece of paper with their name on it. More than two dozen people were kept out of the room because it was filled to capacity.
Both men refused to put disgruntled attendees in contact with any Cornell official in charge of the proceeding, though Grantz later attempted to put The Voice in contact with university Spokesperson Daryl Lovell, who has not contacted The Voice as of Thursday morning.
Cornell Spokesperson Melissa Mae Osgood said in a brief phone interview, “I honestly have no idea. I don’t know anything about that.”
She said she would call The Voice back with more information about the hearing, but as of 6 a.m. Thursday morning, she has not responded to the incident.
The University Hearing Board eventually decided to allow The Cornell Daily Sun reporter Nick Bogel-Burroughs into the hearing. The Ithaca Voice was also eventually allowed into the hearing after barging into the hearing room tailed by a police officer and requesting to be present. The hearing remained closed for all other members of the public.
OJA says this not a freedom of speech issue: ‘With adult choices come adult consequences’
In opening statements, Christina Liang, an associate judicial administrator, said, “This case is a simple noncompliance and misuse of university documents case where respondent did violate the codes.”
Liang claimed that McBride knew the documents he leaked were confidential and that he knowingly defied a direct order from a Cornell official to keep the documents private.
She said the case was not a freedom of speech issue and that McBride’s intention behind the document leak was irrelevant to the hearing, even if he was acting as a whistleblower about an issue.
“The OJA (Office of Judicial Administration) respects freedom of speech and the important of it within a higher education setting,” she said. “The code embodies the principle of freedom of responsibility and with adult choices come adult consequences.”
Judicial Codes Counselor calls the charges “an overzealous attempt to apply the code”
Judicial Codes Counselor Kendall Karr, a law student, represented McBride during the hearing, alongside Attorney Alan Sash, from New York City. Sash was not permitted to speak during the hearing, per OJA policy.
Karr said the decision to charge McBride was “an overzealous attempt to apply the code.”
She said the codes McBride was charged with violating were initially written during the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, and referenced the 36-hour armed takeover of Willard Straight Hall. The Afro-American Society were protesting Cornell’s racism, judicial system and slow progress to develop a black studies program. They were attacked by white Delta Upsilon fraternity members and armed themselves in self-defense.
Karr said the code was written to address instances like that: dangerous, violent and demanding that officials maintain order and respond to situations swiftly.
Since then, she said the code has been “stretched and twisted” to possibly take on other meanings, leaving McBride caught in the crossfire of muddled codes. She said that the code goes on to reference offenses, such as using fake IDs or misusing library books.
“But they’re (The OJA) trying to apply this provision — that has never been used in this way — to a situation where Mitch… disclosed information that was allegedly confidential.”
Karr said that McBride’s decision to give the documents to The Sun was not an easy one or one made lightly.
“It was an unpopular choice…being a dissenter in this day and age is hard…He did it because he was fighting for a vulnerable population of Cornell students — future Cornellians — because this school’s motto is “Any person, any study.” But the working committee was working to amend that to “Any wealthy student, any study” and Mitch fought against that and that wasn’t popular. And now he’s facing charges, institutional sanctions, that simply do not fall under the code.”
Unclear Confidentiality expectations
If one thing was clear during the proceeding, it was that it was unclear to people in the working group that the information being discussed was confidential.
Knuth said that in over 30 years of working on committees and in groups at Cornell, that the issue of confidentiality hadn’t necessarily been an issue in the past. But she said that as chair of the Admissions and Financial Aid Working Group, she periodically reminded students that their work should be kept confidential.
Knuth said, “No, I don’t believe that I articulated (confidentiality) at every meeting and I can’t tell you how many meetings I articulated (confidentiality). ..”
But she nonetheless assumed that the conversations and documents were confidential.
While being questioned, she said there were a lot of reasons why the information had to be kept confidential by working group members.
“They were confidential because there is a great deal of data that needed to be understood and put in the appropriate context,” she said.
Knuth added that reveling the exact process for financial aid offerings also makes Cornell less competitive because it could allow other top-tier universities courting the same students as Cornell to offer better financial aid opportunities. She said this particularly impacted “underrepresented populations.”
“So releasing that kind of information had a very significant negative impact,” Knuth said.
However, only one student witness expressly remembered being told that the meeting were confidential.
Student Yamini Bhandari said she was verbally told by Knuth on one occasion, shortly after joining the working group, that the conversations should be kept confidential. Bhandari said that as Student Trustee, she signed a notice of confidentiality previously and assumed the same standards were in place for the working group.
No physical proof was presented by the OJA, such as written correspondence or confidential watermarks, that the documents used within the working groups were ever said to be confidential.
Five other students called as witnesses during the hearing said they were not informed of the confidential status of the working group. Some of the students were in the working group and others were not. And several of them strongly disagreed with McBride’s actions.
One student, Matthew Henderson said, “I would say that with no rules of confidentiality there wasn’t an expectation that it was confidential.”
Another student, Gabriel Kaufman said he and McBride were former friends and that he didn’t agree with McBride’s decision to give the documents to The Sun. He said it would create mistrust between the student body and the administration.
When McBride told him he leaked the documents to The Sun, Kaufman said he yelled at his friend for about 45 minutes and urged him to ask the newspaper not to print the documents.
“…I thought that his decision was stupid,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman was not a member of the committee but sometimes attended meetings as a rotating Student Assembly member.
He said that while he thought the meetings were confidential, he doesn’t remember being told that information and he never received a written document telling him that the meetings were confidential.
Wrong but not covered by the code
After a relatively brief deliberation — less than an hour — the University Hearing Board reached a decision about the allegations against McBride.
“There was a strong sense of the Hearing Board that the particular actions of Mr. McBride were wrong, but not covered by the Code,” said Professor Timothy DeVoogd, the non-voting chair of the University Hearing Board.
The OJA declined to comment on the matter and Knuth ignored requests for comment by reporters.
McBride celebrated with his attorney and Karr outside of the hearing room and, shortly afterward, was joined by friends who hugged him and congratulated him on the win.
McBride also gave the media an interview, after first double checking with his attorney that he was permitted to talk about the proceeding.
“The community was there for me…they were there. Students and faculty, we united and that just meant so much,” he said.