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Bringing Restorative Justice to Geisel

Behavioral misconduct, whether between faculty, staff, or students, is a well-known narrative in higher education. Yet traditional systems of justice are adversarial—focused on punishment—which may result in resentment and alienation for the offender and does nothing to repair the effect of unruly behavior on the campus community.

There is another way.

Restorative justice (RJ) is an alternative approach to misbehavior grounded in repairing harm caused by misconduct through holding offenders accountable and restoring community trust after campus honor codes and policies have been violated. Requiring a paradigm shift from a punitive mindset to a more educative one, it has become widely used to resolve behavioral difficulties and restore relationships in the criminal justice system, K-12 schools, and student affairs on college campuses.

This restorative process relies chiefly on storytelling to reveal the after-effects of misconduct by giving voice to both victims and offenders, with apology and reparation taking center stage—core principles rooted in indigenous justice practices worldwide.

Intrigued by the tenets of RJ, Leslie Henderson, PhD, dean for faculty affairs at Geisel School of Medicine, attended a training session led by David Karp, PhD, professor and director of the Center for Restorative Justice at the University of San Diego (USD). An award-winning expert in this field, Karp has decades of experience training educators—his book, Restorative Justice for Colleges and Universities, neatly summarizes this work. Co-facilitator, Toni McMurphy, PhD, additionally has long-standing expertise in bias incidence and Title IX.

Inspired by what she learned, Henderson, along with colleagues Alicia Hirte, faculty affairs coordinator, and Faith Goodness, MBA, director of administration, brought Karp and McMurphy to Geisel to lead an RJ training session for faculty and staff.

The three-day immersive training introduced participants to the history, principles, and practices of RJ and how a proactive approach can be used to prevent harm. Engaging in role playing and learning through the experiences of others, topics included power dynamics between faculty and staff. The group also spent significant time building trust within the cohort, which is essential to creating community. Restorative practices have long-term potential for resolving faculty and staff issues at Geisel, Goodness notes.

Moving beyond student affairs, integrating restorative practice in academic medical centers is innovative. Karp and his team are working with a handful of medical schools, including Geisel, and with the Association of American Medical Colleges to adapt RJ practices to medical education—putting Geisel on the leading edge of implementation.

Although new to academic medicine, restorative principles are not new to Dartmouth. Theodosia Cook, CAAP, SHRM-CP, director of the college’s Campus Climate and Culture Initiative, who trained with Karp says, “RJ is an important practice to embrace. I am happy we are moving this into the space of faculty and staff because it identifies a productive path forward for all parties and encourages remediation.”

Katharine Strong, director of Community Standards and Accountability in Dartmouth’s Office of Judicial Affairs, who also trained with Karp, uses restorative principles as one method to resolve student misconduct. But for RJ to be broadly applicable, she notes, “we really need to be utilizing these principles in our day-to-day interactions—though challenging, we continue to work toward what that will look like.”

The difficult and somewhat time-consuming honest conversations necessary for RJ to work take place in circles and conferences, where conversations around harm and accountability occur. Circles are introductory conversations focused on harm and rebuilding trust; conferences, are facilitated conversations about accountability. “In environments focused on punishment, people are often fearful of speaking their mind,” Hirte observes, “but the structure of circles and conferences allows a ‘brave space’ and opens the door for you to shout out what you need.”

“We talked about power dynamics among staff and faculty in a department and questions of attribution when working as part of a team to make sure people are treated with respect and their work input is appropriately recognized. In this case, RJ can be used to prevent harm before it’s done,” says Roshini Pinto-Powell, MD, FACP, a professor of medicine and medical education, and associate dean of students and admissions. “The promise of healing for all involved parties is an attractive way forward.”

Henderson acknowledges that RJ will not work in every situation or with everybody, but that adopting these practices with respect to faculty and staff is an important precept in academic medical communities. Goodness concurs. “So much of my job as a human resources director is focused on employee relations and finding a way to bring disparate parties together without a focus on blame or retribution is appealing,” she says.

“My primary takeaway is the power of a conversation. Having the right context to frame a discussion and simply bringing people together is incredibly powerful and not something we frequently do. It’s an opportunity to address not only specific incidents of harm, but also to build community among those who may feel dispersed or isolated.”

For more information about RJ, please contact Leslie Henderson.