Thank you to the media we invited to hear our statements.
This summer, 15 young people made a serious mistake; 8 were students who are athletes. Their actions squandered the well intentioned enthusiasm, time and resources of initiated measures sponsors who had gone to the substantial added expense of hiring an out of state firm to solicit signatures, and the students’ actions resulted in those initiatives failing to have enough valid signatures for inclusion on the November ballot. Perhaps most importantly, their actions were an insult to both a cherished democratic process in our state, and the citizens it serves.
When confronted, all of the involved student athletes immediately admitted to their actions, and in coordination with athletic department staff, offered no resistance and fully cooperated with the investigation.
Since that time, their behavior has understandably become a matter of considerable public debate and speculation. Opinions, though, have been based on varying levels of information and details regarding what took place, and the confusing array of disciplinary processes involved. And because the public did not hear or observe overt University action, they perhaps understandably assumed that nothing or at least not enough was happening to address and discipline those involved. Ironically, not just one but three processes were already underway.
In the first process, after announcement of the situation two weeks ago, the matter was handed over to the Cass Country prosecutor. In that process, the law of North Dakota was used to consider the behavior and assign what the court considered appropriate punitive punishment. Out of respect for that process, the student athletes remained fully cooperative and offered no resistance or delay. Without challenge they have accepted the court’s consequences of their poor decisions.
In the second process, their behavior was considered through the University’s Code of Student Conduct, used for all students at NDSU and which is very similar to University processes across the country. That process is designed to render educational sanctions from which our students learn the implications of their behavior, with the intended outcome of changing behavior and becoming better members of the University, local and state communities in which they live. Through this second process, they were not treated in a preferential, advantaged or special manner, but rather as are any student in similar circumstances.
Finally, in the case of students who are athletes, team coaches and athletic administrators hold their players further accountable beyond both court and University processes, and often invoke additional sanctions beyond those of the other two. That too is taking place, through a coach and athletic department with a well-established record for treating student behavior issues very seriously.
We assume that the court has dealt appropriately with its aspect of this situation. At the same time, many have questioned the integrity of the University and athletic department handling of this case. Some, if not much, of that criticism is understandable given an almost complete failure by the University to describe what was going on, and unfortunate comments by our Athletic Director which were understandably interpreted as disrespectful and dismissive of concerns.
Throughout these processes, there has been a public expectation that I speak to and explain our position on the matter. While I understand the frustration, two factors have limited my ability to do so. One is that the University president has a role as the final decision maker in the student judicial process, and it would be unfair to students to speak out before the process concludes. The second factor is the federal student privacy law, known as FERPA. I’m the first to recognize that critics claim the University is “hiding behind the law” but it is in fact a law with which we must abide. However, I have called for a review of our policies and we are considering changes in student discipline so that in the future I will not be restricted from offering a University position when doing so is otherwise appropriate.
Many in the public have also offered their opinions, some of them very strong, for what appropriate University and team sanctions should be -- or not be. Opinions range widely, and that range of opinions, and the passions with which they have been expressed, offer a reminder of how complicated this situation is. They also serve to suggest that there is no University or team action which will satisfy most much less everyone and I recognize that as a dilemma.
However, and with great respect for the damage that has been done, we as a University must first and foremost make our decisions on the educational basis, which is the premise of our existence. Again, the role of our court system is to mete out punitive punishment, while the role of a University is to utilize sanctions that educate and change behavior for the better. In this case, the three involved but separate processes have been used in combination to bring appropriate closure in a way mirroring and exceeding what any other students involved in non-violent behaviors would experience. Let me reiterate that we fully recognize in the end there will be critics and some with very strong feelings -- regardless of what the courts, University and coach do.
But if rather than taking an educational approach, we instead attempt to “punish” the players beyond what is consistent, will they learn that they made a terrible mistake and change their behavior or simply be sorry they were caught? Will they learn they were well advised to cooperate with the involved court, University and team investigations, or that they should have denied, delayed or avoided them? If we don’t demonstrate integrity in the face of criticism, what will they learn from that as a result?
As a University, and for me as a University president, I don’t have to ask myself whether it is better to take quick action hoping to minimize public criticism, or be criticized for a measured and thoughtful approach leading to the educationally appropriate action. For me, our students’ best educational interests are the only answer. I’m also pleased to report that as part of our response, we have been in conversation with the sponsors of both referendums, and plan to involve them in our educational sanctions.
Finally, there has been some question of consistency versus other recent disciplinary actions. However, longstanding formal University student athlete policy states that in the case of violent or threatening action, a student athlete will be suspended. Those policies have in the past been consistently followed, but obviously do not apply to the current situation.
I believe Mr. Taylor would now like to offer an apology for his unfortunate and misleading statement on the field moments after an emotional victory over FBS-level Colorado State University. He immediately recognized not only his mistake, but the terrible slight it unintentionally suggested to all North Dakotans. After that, Coach Bohl will share his team discipline decisions, and then we will take questions from media.