CHAPEL HILL — A task force on UNC-Chapel Hill’s sexual harassment and assault policy will look to a recent agreement between the U.S. government and the University of Montana over that campus’s response to sexual assaults.
The settlement, announced last week, requires the University of Montana to do an overhaul of its sexual assault policies and procedures, including educating the campus on harassment and sexual violence, creating a tracking system for complaints, conducting annual campus surveys and requiring better response by campus police. The agreement followed a yearlong federal investigation prompted in part by high-profile sexual assault cases involving football players.
Federal officials have said the Montana agreement provides a blueprint for reform at campuses across the nation.
UNC-CH, itself under federal investigation for its reporting and handling of sexual assault cases, has undertaken a review of its policy by a 22-member task force that includes faculty, staff and students.
The panel started its work Wednesday, when a university-hired consultant, Gina Smith, said UNC-CH is at the forefront of a changing national conversation about sexual misconduct on college campuses.
“You are there and you are emerging as national leaders,” she told the group, “and this task force is one example of it.”
The five women who filed a federal Title IX complaint against UNC-CH have argued that the current policy was written by a few administrators without input from students and those with expertise in sexual violence. They have said the policy is hard to understand and too focused on compliance.
Smith said just meeting standards isn’t enough. The university has to be sure to tend to the needs of individuals who face personal and emotional crises during such experiences, she said.
“Compliance is the floor,” she said. “We want the well-being of our students to be – the sky is the limit.”
A varied task force
The new task force includes a cross-section of faculty, students and staff who regularly deal with sexual harassment and assault, including counselors and coordinators who handle rape prevention education, student complaints and investigations. There is a law enforcement representative and a university attorney, as well as a professor who does research on violence against women, a member of a feminist student group and the director of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer center on campus.
Christy Lambden, student body president, said the diversity of the group should give people confidence about its deliberations.
“From my understanding of the way that the policy was being written previously, this is a much more diverse group writing this policy now and it’s a much bigger group,” Lambden said. “Whether we reach the same conclusion or a different conclusion remains to be seen, but I certainly think that there will be more trust and faith in the process because we do have that big a group with more constituencies represented.”
‘Embrace the tension’
Already, differing opinions began to emerge Wednesday. Several members said there should be some recognition that women are disproportionately affected by sexual violence and that a “fair and balanced” standard may not work in a society where men and women are not always treated equally.
Smith told task force to “embrace the tension” and the group’s chairwoman, Christi Hurt, said disagreements will provide a “creative force” to the discussions.
“It means we’ve got the right people in the room,” Hurt said.
Lambden, the student body president, said the revision of the policy is a recognition that change is necessary.
“There is an understanding that the university has messed up,” he said, “and that now we are doing our best to fix that and move forward.”