The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Sunday June 4th

The Interview: Jon McCay on sexual assault

Opinion editor Maggie Zellner sat down this week to discuss the recent changes to UNC’s sexual assault policies with former Student Attorney General Jon McCay. McCay addressed a number of concerns about the shift in the burden of proof, most notably the rights of the accused.

As someone who’s spent the past four years working on (and eventually leading) the student attorney general’s staff, Jon McCay is in a unique position to talk about the University’s recent changes to its sexual assault policy.

He started out defending and prosecuting cases under the old policy, served as attorney general under the interim policy and saw his successor sworn in days before the Faculty Council approved the new one.

When I begin to ask him why, exactly, it was necessary to shift the burden of proof from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “a preponderance of evidence,” McCay first gives me some context about the nature of the evidence in sexual assault cases, which he says is crucial to understanding why they’re so different from anything else that comes through the honor system.

“It’s always ‘he said,’ ‘she said,” he explains. “It’s not like a plagiarism case where you can bring in emails, Google searches and drafts of a paper. There aren’t any witnesses; it’s not like a cheating case where someone can say they saw a student looking at someone else’s test.”

For academic offenses, McCay says, students in the honor system have the resources and training they need to handle these cases.

“That’s what the honor system is good at. That’s what we’re designed to do.”

He adds, “I don’t mean to trivialize plagiarism, but the stakes just aren’t as high.”

For cases of sexual assault, McCay says, the students who work in the honor system don’t have the training they need. A new body specially trained to adjudicate this kind of case, which the Faculty Council-approved proposal calls for, will be better for all parties — victims and accused alike.

So what about the accused? The new body may be better trained, but its standard for proof — a preponderance of evidence, meaning the panel must find it more likely than not that the assault occurred — seems to abandon the innocent-until-proven guilty model students have come to expect from the honor system. Last week, an online commentor weighed in on an editorial on the topic, saying that the new standard would “be making the burden of proof vague enough to induce an overall paranoia.”

Though McCay concedes that, in practice, the new standard would likely result in more guilty convictions, he is quick to point out that it wouldn’t create any new cases of sexual assault.

Last year, there were 43 cases of sexual assault reported through the University’s available avenues, but the honor system only saw one of them. This semester, with a public push for assault awareness, the court has tried three — still not ideal.

McCay explains that the new system would make it easier for the University to hold those responsible for sexual assault accountable. By treating victims and assailants as equally credible, the honor system will likely see an increase in reporting — not an increase in sexual assault.

If anything, the new standards send a message that men, too, must bear part of the responsibility for preventing sexual assault. Part of this prevention is awareness and a better understanding of consent. We’ve all heard it, but McCay says it again: “Only a clear ‘yes’ means yes. Consent isn’t supposed to be vague.”

Maggie Zellner is the opinion editor of The Daily Tar Heel. She is a junior comparative literature major from Lynchburg, Va. Contact her at

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