ANNAPOLIS – John Hopkins University was within its rights to withhold the diploma of a former student found guilty of murdering a classmate, the Court of Special Appeals said Thursday.
It is the first Maryland ruling on the authority colleges have over students who have completed required courses, but have not yet graduated.
The ruling concerned Robert J. Harwood Jr., 26, who is serving a 35-year sentence after pleading guilty to second-degree murder charges for killing his protege Rex T. Chao in 1996.
Harwood completed requirements for his undergraduate degree a semester early and was not a registered student when the crime happened. Nevertheless, the court ruled, Harwood was subject to the university code of conduct.
Harwood’s attorneys argued he was not punishable under that code because he completed his requirements early, was not enrolled and was forced to wait under school rules until the spring graduation ceremony to receive his diploma. Further, they claimed the university denied Harwood due process by not considering his mental condition at the time of the crime, the opinion said.
The university said Harwood was still considered a student because he had not graduated, the ruling said.
“The relationship between a student and a private university is largely contractual in nature,” said Judge Sally D. Adkins’ opinion. Contractual terms are published, the ruling said, in brochures, course offering bulletins, and other official statements, policies and publications’ of a university. “The university is required to conduct its hearings and enforce its policies consistent with the terms,” she wrote.
Harwood’s local attorney, Michael Kaminkow, could not be reached for comment.
“Whether he completed his requirements was not the question,” said Gerard St. Ours, associate general counsel for the university. “It’s whether you graduated and if you haven’t graduated you are still under the university’s codes.”
The Harwood murder jolted the John Hopkins community and left many wondering how this crime could happen because the two students were once close, according to published reports at the time of the slaying.
Harwood was a whiz chemistry student who planned to attend law school, university officials said.
He entered the college in 1992 with a stellar high school record and met Chao through a campus Republican group. The two maintained a kinship until Chao began to draw away from Harwood.
Two months before the shooting, Chao contacted Dean of Students Susan Boswell and told her Harwood was harassing him. He also told her he knew Harwood owned a gun.
“There was never an indication from Rex or his family that he felt he was in physical danger from Harwood,” school spokesman Dennis O’Shea said. “(Harwood) was asked about the gun and we were told it was at his home in New England.”
After the incident, Harwood was required to tell campus officials when he would be on campus.
Harwood contacted Boswell and told her he would be attending a meeting of the College Republicans on campus the night of the shooting. After that April 10, 1996, meeting, he confronted Chao and shot him twice.
Harwood pleaded guilty to murder charges in July 1997. Soon after his criminal case, John Hopkins expelled him from school.
“We are gratified that the court upheld that point of view,” O’Shea said. “It was very traumatic at the time, and it is still remembered here.”