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Faculty, staff weigh in on Folt's pledge to review UNC sexual harassment policies

<p>UNC Chancellor Carol Folt speaks at the 2017 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb at Kenan Memorial Football Stadium.</p>
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UNC Chancellor Carol Folt speaks at the 2017 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb at Kenan Memorial Football Stadium.

In a university-wide message on Jan. 9, Chancellor Carol Folt said UNC administration will review its sexual harassment and discrimination policies in response to the #MeToo movement.

Folt, Felicia Washington, the vice chancellor for workforce strategy, equity and engagement, and Provost Robert Blouin wrote a letter posted to UNC’s website addressing the recent wave of women speaking out against sexual misconduct in the workplace, specifically through social media platforms with #MeToo.  

“The issue of sexual harassment is on the minds of everyone, as we have watched thousands of women across the nation courageously come forward to tell their stories,” wrote Folt, Blouin and Washington. “The #MeToo movement has started a powerful and important dialogue in our nation and around the world, and it’s helping inspire a transformative and positive change in our society.”

Folt, Blouin and Washington said they are taking steps to create a culture on campus that is free of harassment.

“We are taking a fresh and critical look at policies and procedures across the University to make sure we are doing everything we can to create an inclusive and respectful culture at Carolina," they wrote. "We also are working to improve prevention measures, including evaluating and enhancing our training programs.”

The Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office said they had nothing to add to Folt’s comments. 

Gloria Thomas, the director of the Carolina Women’s Center, said the center does not plan on changing its typical activities. 

“I don’t anticipate that our work will change in response to Chancellor Folt’s message,” Thomas said. “We will continue to provide the advocacy and support to survivors, and education and awareness to community members as we have been, as long as this work is needed.”

In 2013, students submitted complaints regarding UNC’s handling of sexual assault reports under Title IX law, resulting in multiple federal investigations. In 2014, the University released a new policy on discrimination and harassment, outlining the process for students reporting and responding to cases of sexual assault. The University was also prominently featured in “The Hunting Ground,” a 2015 documentary about rape culture in American colleges. 

Geography associate professor Altha Cravey sued UNC in 2017 for gender discrimination, claiming similarly-qualified male colleagues were granted full professor status while she was denied such promotion. 

While she cannot comment on the details of her case, Cravey said she thinks the #MeToo movement is an opportunity to not just change policy, but to form a safer culture for all kinds of people on college campuses. 

“It is essential to think about the #MeToo movement's implications for low-paid workers on campus, for undergraduates, graduate students, staff, professors and administrators,” Cravey said. “Good policies will not be enough.”

Anthropology professor Florence Babb, who has conducted research on gender inequalities, said she was happy to see Folt taking the issue of sexual harassment seriously in light of the #MeToo movement. She said the move is important given the United States Department of Education’s September of 2017 decision to revoke Obama-era guidance to universities on handling sexual assault cases.  

“We need to go a step further and set high expectations for our campus climate and for responding to charges of sexual harassment and assault,” Babb said. “This is especially urgent at a time when the U.S. government is eroding Title IX and other protections that were earlier set in place.”

The #MeToo movement has helped to reveal the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in higher education as well. Karen Kelsky, the founder of the academic career consulting firm The Professor Is In, created an ongoing crowdsource survey in early December 2017 that provided an anonymous platform for people in academia to share stories of sexual harassment and abuse. 

So far, about 2,300 former and current professors, undergraduate students and graduate students have reported their experiences.

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