CHAPEL HILL — The outside consultant who will examine how UNC-Chapel Hill handles sexual assault officially introduced herself to students at a forum Wednesday afternoon.
In January, several students, a former student and a former administrator filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. They asked for an investigation into how UNC-CH responds to sexual assaults and said the university deliberately under-reported such incidents in 2010. UNC-CH leaders strongly deny the allegation, with Leslie Strohm, vice chancellor and general counsel, calling it “just plain wrong.”
The university brought in Gina Smith, a Pennsylvania attorney and sexual violence expert, to report on the university’s policies and culture in the wake of the filing. Smith consults on the same issues for Amherst College following similar complaints by students.
“I will be present to listen,” Smith told a standing-room-only crowd at the Campus Y. “And I can assure you that your administration is listening.”
The Student Advisory Committee for the Chancellor billed the forum in advance on Facebook as an open dialogue with Chancellor Holden Thorp and Smith, with Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp also in attendance.
Thorp, who said he could not discuss details of the complaint, spoke only to introduce Smith and close the meeting, however, and Crisp said afterward he wanted to focus on listening to student concerns.
“I think the best thing that can come out of this is that people want to be engaged in what is a systemic and societywide problem,” Crisp said. “Then there’s hope that as a community, we can change the culture.”
Smith said she will examine policies and help the community to examine the culture surrounding sexual assault at UNC-CH. Since Wednesday’s forum marked the beginning of that process, Smith said, she took extra time to introduce herself and begin to develop the relationship.
Nearly 30 minutes into the hour-long forum, Smith began to take questions, too late for some members of the audience.
“You’ve all been talking at us for 40 minutes,” geography professor Altha Cravey said. “You’re a legal expert. You’re not an expert on masculinity, or violent masculinity. You’re not an expert on rape culture. This is a conversation about a technicality.”
Smith replied: “I have walked the walk with thousands of victims. I understand the intersection of victims and the legal framework. Point well taken – and I will take more questions.”
Over the next half-hour, audience members, including students who identified themselves as sexual assault survivors, asked Smith about how to engage the community and change the culture at UNC-CH, and shared their own experiences of feeling marginalized.
Smith emphasized the importance of not just identifying what needs to be fixed on campus, but joining together as a community to fix it.
Sallie Shuping-Russell, a member of the Board of Trustees, thanked audience members for their courage in sharing their stories.
“This is a very high priority for us,” she said. “I just want to thank you all for opening up a bit to us.”
Over the next month, Smith plans to speak with any students, professors and administrators who want to meet with her to examine the way the university handles sexual assault. Several professors in the audience noted that UNC-CH has faculty members who are national experts in some of the issues brought up in the complaint, and Smith said she plans to consult with these community experts.
Thorp said he hopes fixing the problems will be part of the legacy he leaves before he steps down as chancellor in June – and that the current dialogue spurs an ongoing conversation for years to come.
“These are the issues that keep chancellors and vice chancellors of student affairs up at night,” he said. “The real test will be, are we having these kinds of conversations a year from now, two years from now? So we don’t have to have these public incidents happen in order to have this type of engagement.”