More than a year ago, five women filed federal complaints against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for its handling and reporting of sexual assaults. Now, at long last and after formation of a 22-member task force, the university has responded in a good way.
A new policy puts more order into the handling of sexual misconduct issues, from sexual assault to gender discrimination to harassment and stalking. Bold points in the new policy include: Victims can go through a regular adjudication process or choose mediation, in which case there would be no confrontational hearing; if the accuser chooses adjudication, a university investigator, trained in the field, would review the facts and issue a finding, which could be appealed; no students will sit on a hearing panel to review accusations; consent will be defined as more than just a failure to say “no.”
UNC-CH’s action comes as universities around the country are trying to deal with issues of sexual harassment and assault on campuses. Some schools have been accused of not taking such claims seriously, perhaps writing them off to alcohol or poor decisions on the part of young people. U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a leader in pressuring universities to do a more thorough job with sexual misconduct accusations, noted that a survey of 350 schools showed that 41 percent hadn’t had a single investigation of a sexual assault in the past five years.
UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt was involved in two meetings at the White House, where the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault has focused on the issue. Folt says UNC-CH’s action follows the recommendations of that task force and federal policy.
Chapel Hill lawyer Henry Clay Turner has represented several people who reported sexual assaults and sees some positives here. But he says one flaw is that accusers don’t have enough rights in the appeals process, and he is skeptical about the ability of university officials to conduct “professional or prompt investigations.” He adds “So we’re giving them additional responsibility and an added adjudication responsibility.” University officials would be wise to be open to modifications in the policy after consulting with lawyers who have represented accusers.
Running a university always has been like steering a battleship. It is difficult to make change, even when change obviously is needed. And universities have in the past been wary of dealing with sexual assault and harassment issues because they are complicated and a university worries about legal exposure.
But UNC-Chapel Hill has done something here that is a responsible action and long-needed.