A law of their own

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Students headed for college in the fall are already finding that there's lots to learn about their impending new life. Peruse the course catalog: check. Read the student guide to nightlife: check. Fully understand the campus judiciary system.

What?

It's safe to say most students don't give a whole lot of thought to the adjudication of disputes on campus. They steer through college getting their coursework done, abiding by basic rules, and not being accused of causing harm.

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But for those who do find themselves on the wrong side of the campus bench, the experience can be a surprising and sometimes wrenching education. (Story, right.)

Last week, Harvard University announced it was changing its campus judicial system in an effort to expedite decisions. Many of those had been dragging on for months at a stretch. That much sounds like the court system familiar to those outside the university.

But comparisons beyond that? To a certain extent, you'd hope they'd be harder to find. Universities are educational institutions, after all, not courts. Still, parents whose child faces a serious accusation of, say, sexual misconduct or theft might move to hire a lawyer for advice. At many schools, that lawyer cannot be present at a student's hearing. Proceedings are also confidential – but the results may go on a student's record.

One positive move at Harvard is changing a policy that allowed an accusation to lead automatically to a hearing. Requiring more evidence can guard against one person's opinion standing in as evidence, for example. But critics still question whether campuses should do more to open up proceedings that can have life-altering consequences.

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