Desler to oversee hearings and appeals boards

Becky Bowman

When former Assistant to the Vice President Margo Brown, Medill ’59, finally followed through with her retirement plans in December, she left behind a 28-year legacy of overseeing disciplinary action at Northwestern.

Her authority over NU’s two hearing and appeals systems, the University Hearing and Appeals System and the University Sexual Assault Hearings and Appeals System, has now been passed to Mary Desler, assistant vice president for student affairs, who began her work at NU five years ago.

The decision to give Desler authority over the hearing and appeals boards was made last summer in order to ensure a smooth transition of power, said Vice President for Student Affairs William Banis.

“We didn’t know who would be Margo Brown’s replacement,” Banis said. “We didn’t want to have a disruption in the administration of either program.”

Desler’s experience at NU made her a good choice to take over the appeals boards, Banis said.

“She worked closely with Margo at NU,” Banis said. “She knows our students. She’s done this work before. She’s a professional.”

Desler gained experience in disciplinary administration when she worked on boards at both University of Illinois at Chicago and North Central College in Naperville.

While working as a hall director at Michigan State University, where she earned her doctorate, Desler experienced chaos when Michigan’s legal drinking age climbed from 18 to 21.

“Literally, you could drink in the halls one day and not the next,” she said. “What a year that was. It was hard on students and it was definitely hard on the staff.”

Desler also worked on cases at UIC and North Central that resemble the disciplinary matters she will see at NU.

“I just need to learn our system, but the processes at schools are mostly the same,” she said.

In order to oversee the appeals boards, Desler gave up some of her previous responsibilities, including investigating sexual harassment cases and overseeing a mentor program on campus. She will continue to supervise the Multicultural Center and several student-services centers on campus.

Although the appeals boards will be among her top priorities, the number of cases heard have decreased in recent years as the administration has worked to resolve some cases without the input of the boards, Desler said. Students often opt to go through the administration to avoid having cases placed on their formal records, or choose to partake in informal conciliatory hearings with the appeals board representatives.

While UHAS has received 484 complaints in its 32-year history, it has not received more than five complaints per year in the past five years, Brown said.

Taking a case to a formal hearing is more time consuming than working through the administration, said Mary Goldenberg, senior associate director of residential life.

“The main purpose is to stop the behavior that happened and educate the person,” Goldenberg said. “(The levels) all essentially do just that, with a different bent.”

Brown, who dealt with issues ranging from student sit-in protests to naked fraternity members being tied up outside sorority houses, said the decline in cases does not indicate a loss in power for the two boards.

“UHAS has not lost its power in any way at all,” Brown said. “It’s good that the (residential life) staff reviews most of the disciplinary matters because they can be handled administratively. Even though UHAS isn’t used that often, it’s used when it is important.”

Brown said Desler will succeed in her new role by encouraging students to go through the administrative route toward a resolution instead of attempting a hearing.

“She does hope and believe that most cases can be worked out through conciliation and formal reviews,” Brown said. “She’s a very thoughtful person who is not going to be unreasonable.”

Cate Whitcomb, who worked briefly in the human resource department at NU a year ago, was hired Dec. 21 as Banis’ new assistant. Whitcomb will help Banis by handling external relations and maintaining Web pages for NU departments, a job Brown handled.