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The Daily Tar Heel

Honor system’s autonomy intact after reform of sexual assault policy

When Chancellor Holden Thorp issued a call for reform of the honor system last summer, the system’s student leaders vowed to retain the institution’s most tradition-bound characteristic — its entirely student-led structure.

But with last week’s approval of a new sexual assault policy — one that removes cases from the jurisdiction of the honor system effective Aug. 1 — the institution’s autonomy was called into question.

Unanimously approved by UNC’s Faculty Council April 13, the change will likely lead to a new body of trained administrators, faculty and students to handle cases of sexual assault.

But honor system members, who have long praised the value of students holding other students accountable, have endorsed this narrowing of responsibilities — claiming the institution cannot provide the demanded resources.

“The new policy doesn’t undermine our credibility or autonomy in any way,” said Margaret Anderson, chairwoman of the Honor Court. “It will just help us maintain our community standards better in every other area.”

Anderson said the new policy does not remove Honor Court members entirely. Two members will sit on the five-person panel, which will also include two faculty members and one administrator, she said.

The reduction of student presence in judging sexual assault cases was made to mitigate bias surrounding the sensitive issue.

But the concern of whether bias extends to other violations the court hears — like plagiarism and fighting — has been disputed.

“Bias exists in sexual assault cases because they are just so much more emotional, and people have more preconceived ideas about them,” Chairwoman of the Faculty Jan Boxill said.

“Issues like plagiarism are less biased because they are a lot more objective — people just don’t think of sexual assault that way.”
Anderson said academic and conduct cases are shielded from bias because members must remove themselves if they feel strongly about a case.

But Dean of Students Jonathan Sauls said internal bias — in any case — is not a bad thing.

“Bias usually conjures a pejorative image that folks can’t render an impartial judgment,” he said.

“Bias isn’t a detriment, it ensures there is a broad array of perspectives,” Sauls said.

Sauls said the new policy will likely encourage assault victims to report cases because it will not use the Honor Court’s structure of a criminal justice proceeding.

“It’s going to have the elements of the judicial process, but it is also going to try to more effectively hear both sides of the story and give fairer rights to both parties,” said Student Attorney General Amanda Claire Grayson.

Though details of the final policy have yet to be ironed out, Sauls said UNC will look to other universities for suggestions.

The University of Virginia offers a policy similar to the one UNC aims to establish, using a sexual misconduct board composed of faculty, administrators and students that is independent from the University’s Judiciary Committee.

Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania also use similar policies of student and faculty collaboration.

Emily Forrester, chairwoman of UVa.’s University Judiciary Committee, said the panel is more discussion based, allowing the victim and the accused to feel more comfortable.

“We have students who understand what the norms are in college life of UVa. and adults who have real life experience and a lot of training,” she said.

Contact the University Editor at university@dailytarheel.com.

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