For years, universities have played an inappropriate role in the aftermath of incidents of rape involving students. At UNC, the Honor Court, a quasi-judicial board made up entirely of students, heard and adjudicated cases of sexual assault until last year. Similar models were used across the country, becoming the object of intense scrutiny as to whether they could effectively deal with such a sensitive crime.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education issued what is popularly referred to as the “Dear Colleague” letter. The letter included a set of guidelines for making the ways colleges dealt with sexual assault compliant with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, landmark legislation aimed at preventing sex discrimination. During the last two years, UNC and the rest of the nation’s universities have implemented the changes demanded by the letter: lowering the standard of proof required to determine guilt in rape cases and the hiring of an individual to oversee the processes, among others.
Yet despite the changes, the University’s updated procedures remain confusing, arbitrary and disturbing in the respective burdens they place on both students who file complaints and students who stand accused. Examples abound.
The very makeup of the Student Grievance Committee — the body charged with formally resolving complaints — is baffling. One-third of its members are students whose only qualifications are that they managed to be appointed by the student body president or the Graduate and Professional Student Federation president, individuals who are not elected on the pretense of expertise in the area of sexual assault.
The policy goes on to speak only in vague terms on the level of training given to a group with so much responsibility, leaving too much room for error to a group of amateur judges.
And the committee has at its disposal a number of punishments, ranging from a written warning to expulsion.
In short, changes to the system failed to correct the same kinds of heinous flaws that a group of current and former students has used as evidence in bringing two federal investigations to UNC.
The current system functions as a stopgap answer to the demands of the “Dear Colleague” letter. And while many have praised the document as a step in the right direction, the letter largely standardizes and codifies the trappings of a broken system. By taking steps like mandating a change in burden of proof, the letter further legitimizes the quasi-judicial bodies that have long suggested the possibility of justice for survivors but failed to provide it.
But, whatever its many shortcomings, the letter carries the weight of federal law, and the University has an obligation to comply with it. And yet this does not mean the University should feel as though its hands are tied in what it can change. The “Dear Colleague” letter is a complicated document, but its broader requirements are clear, and could be satisfied by a system that is narrower in scope, but better accomplishes its mission.
For example, the Title IX coordinator could be responsible for considering complaints of sexual assault, providing both sides the opportunity to present evidence and wielding only the corrective action that is in the best interest of immediate student safety. Meanwhile, this coordinator could also be responsible for working with law enforcement to seek justice. But reorienting the roles of administrators isn’t enough to fix the problem of ineffective sexual assault policy.
Indeed, such a revised system would work only as part of a multi-dimensional approach — one that stresses greater education, sustained support and deference to law enforcement. These are the proper means for the University to help fight sexual assault, and they work hand-in-hand with each other. The University can make the often intimidating criminal justice system more manageable through counseling. By educating students about the criminal — rather than institutional — consequences of rape, the University can more effectively prevent it.
But why not allow the University to provide a separate avenue for survivors of rape to pursue resolution? Proponents of this approach, in place at UNC and across the country, argue that such systems are desirable because they cater to the special needs of college students. They allow for quicker resolution, more privacy and more support than the criminal justice system can give. And it’s true that the criminal justice system is not known for its sensitivity in cases of rape, which are notoriously difficult to adjudicate — in a student hearing or a court of law.
But the fact remains that it is not the University’s place to suggest it can systematically provide justice for victims of rape; a system that issues rulings, features various degrees of punishment and boasts a standard of proof implicitly makes that empty claim. Gentler treatment of sexual violence — for the victims and the perpetrators — is a form of discrimination in itself, because it treats the crime less seriously than other severe crimes.
Relieving ourselves of the expectation of adjudication does not mean turning our backs on victims of rape, and it does not mean denying those accused due process. It is simply a response that is both moral and sensible — an answer to the hard question of how to handle this problem across the country.
Those most capable of changing the polices of the University — its leadership — are making an honest effort to re-evaluate this system. They should not entirely dismiss wholehearted and comprehensive reform because it doesn’t stick to a conventional reading of the “Dear Colleague” letter, especially given the Department of Education’s tendency to work with, rather than punish, allegedly noncompliant colleges.
South Building should not let perceived legal complications stand in the way of its moral obligation and its ability to effect large-scale change. The University is a respected institution in public higher education. It can be a leader on this issue, but only if it is willing to call a crime a crime.