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Editorial Q&A: Consistency on a case-by-case basis

As student leaders of the University’s Honor Court educate students this week about role of the honor system, opinion editor Maggie Zellner sat down with Michelle Healy, chair of the Undergraduate Honor Court, to discuss how they make decisions and determine sanctions.

Daily Tar Heel: How does the Honor Court make decisions? Is each individual case different, or are there more general guidelines?

Michelle Healy: What makes it difficult is the fact that we don’t operate on precedent. We have some guiding factors, but we make our judgments on a case-by-case basis.

DTH: What are kinds of circumstances might lead to a lesser punishment, even if a student is found guilty?

MH: There are four categories of factors we consider when deciding on sanctions. The first two are the gravity of the offense and what the student can learn from the experience. The third consideration is equitable treatment for similar offenses. The final one is other compelling circumstances.

DTH: What qualifies as “other compelling circumstances”?

MH: Whatever other evidence the student provides for the Court falls into this category. I really cannot tell you any blanket circumstances that may or may not be compelling — not only because of confidentiality but also because we look at each case on an individual basis.

DTH: Does the same panel of Honor Court members determine both guilt and punishment for a given case, or do separate groups make these judgments?

MH: The same panel that judges a case also determines what sanctions are given. That is, if sanctioning is required.

DTH: So what is the role of professors in these hearings?

MH: Professors act as reporting parties and serve in a sort of hybrid witness-victim capacity. There’s not really a designated way to explain the role of reporting party, which is part of the reason how professors interact with the system can be little bit murky for them.

DTH: How do appeals work?

MH: Students have three different rights of appeal. They can appeal on the severity of sanction, violation of basic rights and insufficiency of evidence. If they plead guilty, they waive some of those rights.

If an appeal is deemed warranted, it goes to an appeals board, which two faculty members, one administrator and two students sit on. And I’m not sure of the exact numbers, but I’d say we have at least a dozen appeals each semester, out of about 75 or 100 total cases.

DTH: Do faculty ever appeal cases? Is that possible?

MH: As it stands, faculty do not have an appeal right. But that’s something that’s come up in several of the honor system task force’s discussions, so it’ll be interesting to see how those play out.

DTH: What’s your analogous body in the criminal court system?

MH: Well there’s a big differences between the Honor Court and a criminal court in that we are an administrative body, so the purpose that our outcomes serve is different.

But if you did try to draw an analogy, we’d probably be a mixture between judge and jury. We serve as a neutral party between the faculty and the students — that is what our role is intended to be.

DTH: How do you put together a panel of Honor Court members for a given case?

MH: It depends on who’s available. From that pool, we try to get a fairly random mix of students.

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DTH: Do you feel like the Honor Court is representative of the student body? Is diversity an issue for you?

MH: We can always be taking steps to ensure that we’re representative of the student body. But I think you get into a bit of a philosophical debate when you start talking about whether Court members are a jury or judges — to what level are we peers, and to what level are we serving in an official capacity, as administrators?

DTH: What do students going into an Honor Court case need to know about the sanctioning process?

MH: While I can’t say whether certain circumstances would absolutely lead to a certain sanction, what I can tell you is that, in every single case, when students present us with information, we review it. And we take it very seriously.

And we make sure that we consider it not only when making our decision, but also when explaining our decision to the student after each case, so he or she can see how we cam to our decision.

DTH: So, on the whole, what is the Honor Court’s primary role?

MH: We are not there to advocate for the students, nor are we there to advocate for the professors. We are there to figure out how to balance the interests of the University and the interests of students. And it’s a very tricky balance.