UNC chancellor welcomes federal investigation of sexual assaults

Mar. 08, 2013 @ 04:48 PM

UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp said in a letter to the campus Friday that he welcomes the U.S. Department of Education’s probe into the university’s handling of sexual assaults.

Thorp’s letter addressed to students, faculty and staff came as the campus prepared to shut down to begin a week of spring break.

“The university is cooperating fully with this investigation,” Thorp wrote. “In fact, we welcome it. Our response will show how the university has made significant changes in the past 18 months about how sexual assault complaints are handled.”

He cited the removal of sexual assault cases from the jurisdiction of the Honor System and implementing a new system under which a trained panel of students, faculty and staff hear such cases.

Thorp’s letter comes about a week after the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) notified the campus that it will investigate claims that the university has mishandled sexual assault.

It has given the university 20 days to comply with more than two pages of requests for information and data about UNC’s policy and procedures regarding sexual assault, the names and job descriptions of people responsible for handling complaints of sexual assault and a spreadsheet detailing all student complaints made during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 academic years, among other requests.

The civil rights office’s investigation was sparked by complaints by three students, one former student and the former assistant dean of students Melinda Manning.

They allege the university violated the rights of sexual assault victims and created a hostile environment for students reporting sexual assault.

Manning also has accused university officials of pressuring her into lowering the number of reported offenses and claims there were three fewer cases in the Annual Campus Security Report than she originally submitted.

UNC officials vigorously denied the charge during a Board of Trustees meeting in January. Officials contend that the report, in fact, contained more incidents of sexual violence than Manning submitted for the report.

In his letter, Thorp noted the university begun making changes to its policies for handling sexual assault claims long before the OCR announced it would investigate the school.  

“In fact, much of this work is in response to guidelines and recommendations issued by the Office for Civil Rights to universities nationwide in 2011.” Thorp said.

Still, he acknowledged there are problems that still need attention, and pledged to address them before he leaves in June to become provost of Washington University in St. Louis.

“Our system is still not perfect,” Thorp said. “There is more work to be done, and we are committed to making additional changes that will improve the way sexual assault cases are handled at the university.”

Thorp said Joanne Hershfield, chairwoman of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, has made suggestions about how the university may improve the way it addresses sexual assaults on campus.

He said he will review Hershfield’s suggestions and work with her and other faculty members to “continue the dialogue about how we can do better.”

An online suggestion box has also been established so that students, faculty, staff, alumni and others can share thoughts about improving UNC’s handling of sexual assault.

The suggestion box can be accessed at http://campusconversation.web.unc.edu/suggestion-box/.

The charge that the university has mishandled sexual assault has been a topic of national and international discussion in recent weeks.

Thorp has hired Gina Smith, a nationally recognized expert on sexual assault issues, to meet with students and engage them in discussions.