Cases exceed UNC-CH’s Honor Court system

March 7, 2013 

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has faced multiple investigations in recent months pertaining to its football program and academic fraud. Now another type of investigation is under way on campus, this one conducted by the U.S. Department of Education.

Federal officials, who stress the decision to investigate isn’t a finding, will look into complaints from several women who say the university improperly handled complaints of sexual harassment or sexual assaults on campus, violating the rights of those who brought the complaints.

The case that has gotten the most attention is that of student Landen Gambill, who said a boyfriend raped and sexually abused her during their relationship. She went to the dean of students early last year to obtain a “no contact” order against him. She then pursued her complaint through a university hearing, which resulted in a not guilty finding.

Gambill has gone public with her story, though the ex-boyfriend has not been named. (His attorney says many people on campus know who he is and that he has suffered as a result.) And now Gambill has joined some other students and a former administrator in a complaint to the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education.

Most recently, Gambill has been charged with an honor code violation for “intimidating behavior” against her ex-boyfriend.

Throughout this controversy, the university has emphasized that the honor system is run by students and that the administration can’t have anything to do with charges that are brought or how the court rules.

And though Gambill’s initial complaint didn’t go through the Honor Court, which no longer handles sexual assault cases, a spotlight has prompted questions about the propriety of the honor system as it exists, with student control and apparently only minor oversight from faculty.

According to the university’s explanation of the honor system on its website, student self-governance dates back more than a century. But should a system that began in the 19th century still apply? There is something troubling about leaving serious legal issues that can become complicated to a student judicial process.

Students are young, inexperienced and, in most cases, hardly qualified to make judgments that might affect whether a student is punished or even expelled, which is possible. And with students of college age, personal rivalries or organizational rivalries between fraternities and sororities, for example, can develop that could influence a ruling on the honor court. The consequences of losing in that court are serious, with a suspension, for example, causing a serious disruption.

The honor system began when the university was a small place where students knew one another and saw one another every day. Values were shared and times were simpler. Now UNC-CH is essentially a city with 20,000-plus residents.

This episode may provide a lesson that can well-serve the university in the future. It’s fine to give students responsibility in the process of helping them mature as part of higher education. But to have them run a court system is too much and could possibly open the university to legal action. UNC-Chapel Hill should re-examine the Honor Court system and consider radical change.

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