An external review of the Landen Gambill Honor Court case detailed weaknesses in the University’s Honor System and called into question the merits of an entirely student-run court.
Rutgers professor Barbara Lee’s investigation found that the student handling the case was insufficiently trained and advised, leading her to bring forward a charge that was potentially unconstitutional.
“I believe that the University’s decision to delegate both the content of the Honor Code and the disciplinary process to a student-controlled and administered process is very problematic,” Lee wrote in her report, obtained by The Daily Tar Heel.
In February, Gambill, then a sophomore, faced an Honor Court charge for engaging in intimidating behavior toward her ex-boyfriend, whom she publicly accused of raping her.
Chancellor Holden Thorp immediately suspended the Honor Court case and hired Lee to review Gambill’s claims. Last week, he dismissed the charges against Gambill and suspended the intimidation provision for further review.
Lee found no evidence of retaliation by the University in her review, but her report provided details of how the charges against Gambill developed.
The report states when the Honor Court charge was filed, it fell under the graduate and professional student attorney general’s jurisdiction to determine whether there was substantial evidence to bring it in front of the court — the standard procedure in these cases.
But according to the report, the student attorney general told Lee she had not received formal training on how to make this determination, so she followed a standard set by her predecessors — one that required a 30-percent probability that the court would find the accused guilty before the case could move forward.
“She stated that she was ‘worried about the media fallout and how (Gambill) might perceive the charge as retaliation,’” the report reads.
The report states the student attorney general, in making her decision, sought guidance from a number of administrators, including Judicial Programs Officer Erik Hunter. Lee reported that Hunter told her he thought evidence for the charge was “thin” — but he did not intervene because he felt he was unable to do so.
The student attorney general told Lee she would have liked to speak with Dean of Students Jonathan Sauls as well, but couldn’t because he would have been involved in the appeals process.
Neither Sauls nor Hunter responded to requests for comment.
The student attorney general ultimately decided to bring the charge before the court.
“She said that she ‘didn’t really want to charge’ the student with an Honor Code violation, but ‘thought she should,’” the report states.
According to the report, after her decision was made, the system’s structure prevented University administrators from overruling it — illustrating the lack of administrative control Lee found concerning.
Gambill’s attorney, Henry Clay Turner, said Thorp’s eventual decision to step in and suspend the Honor Court proceedings after his client filed her complaint was a step in the right direction, but it came far too late.
“The charges were unconstitutional,” he said. “It should’ve never been allowed to progress a week, much less a month.”
Anna Sturkey, incoming undergraduate student attorney general, said in an email that while the Honor System is student-run, it does not operate in a vacuum from administrators.
That means, she said, that it is the administration’s — not the student attorney general’s — responsibility to intervene if the constitutionality of a charge is in question, as it was in this case.
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp said he hopes this case will establish that the administration needs to exercise its duty to intervene if there are concerns about constitutionality raised in the future.
He said in this case, the administrative decision to step in and suspend the provision was due to its language rather than any dealings a particular person had with it. He said there are no other cases pending under this provision.
“This is about making sure the system itself and the provisions under which it operates has constitutional muster,” he said. “I need to protect students in that arena.”
But John Gresham, an attorney representing Gambill’s ex-boyfriend, said the University’s decision to completely dismiss his client’s case — rather than postpone a ruling on it until after a decision has been made on the future of the provision — is unprincipled.
“At this point, the chancellor’s decision simply looks like an abandonment of the University’s founding principles with a basic obligation of their dealing with my client for the sake of expedience,” Gresham said.
Crisp said he thought the student attorney general did a good job given her circumstances, as was outlined in the report — but he said the level of training required to deal with all the different cases Honor Court faces is still a continuing subject for review.
“I’m sure there will be an increase (in training),” he said. “But what and where and how is another question.”
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