Nearly 180 UNC professors and graduate students have signed on to a boycott of the student-run Honor Court system, stating a collective refusal to send students to the courts for any disciplinary action until a list of demands are met.
At the time of publication, the boycott had received signatures across numerous departments. It included 36 professors, almost 140 graduate students, many of whom work as teaching assistants and in other positions, and a handful of other University members.
The boycott began due to a combination of frustrations with the honor system, which consists of an Undergraduate branch and a Graduate and Professional Schools branch.
One focus is the trial of Maya Little, a doctoral history student recently sanctioned by the Honor Court for spreading a mix of her blood and red paint on the Confederate monument Silent Sam in April. The case, which Little successfully appealed and expects to continue in the spring semester, received backlash after Frank Pray, a law student heavily involved in past advocacy for Silent Sam, was allowed to remain a member of the panel sanctioning Little.
Started by history graduate students Alyssa Bowen and Jennifer Standish, the boycott also references that Little, a Black woman, faced a five-person panel that included no Black students.
One listed demand is for Little’s charges to be dropped. The boycott also demands that racial inequities in Honor Court decisions, proceedings and charging be addressed, citing a 2016 DTH article that covered the disproportionate amount of Honor Court cases concerning students of color. The final demand is that each student-member of the honor system involved with Little’s case be held accountable.
Susan Bickford, a political science professor and 26-year faculty member, said she joined the boycott after a colleague told her about it. In an email to the DTH, she said she’d been mostly happy when using the Honor Court for past instances of plagiarism.
However, she said she thinks it isn’t appropriate for the court to adjudicate political disagreements and instances of civil disobedience, and that the “clearly unfair” treatment of Little has undermined her trust in the institution and students running it.
“I was stunned that a member of the court was on record as a supporter of Confederate monuments and was not asked to recuse himself,” Bickford said. “It showed a disturbing lack of judgment on the part of the students running the proceedings.”
English professor John McGowan said he thinks Little has done a service to the University in her activism against Silent Sam. He said he found it odd that the Honor Court sanctioned her with 18 hours of community service despite an Orange County judge issuing no criminal sanctions for the same charge.
McGowan, also a 26-year faculty member, had already stopped using the Honor Court prior to Little’s case, something he knows other faculty have also done. He called the system “broken,” referencing its handling of past plagiarism cases as often unsatisfactory. Due to that, he said his main commitment to the boycott is in support of Little.
“I used to think UNC often did the wrong thing in a knee-jerk moment, and then, if enough people raised their voices, UNC had a really good track record of doing the right thing on the second move,” McGowan said. “I don’t have as much faith in that now as I did five years ago.”
In a statement emailed to the DTH by Joanne Peters Denny, UNC’s director of media relations, Dean of Students Jonathan Sauls said that although the petition had not yet been shared with his office, the University supports the appropriate role for faculty to play in providing feedback on the Honor Court.
“In the University’s history, these conversations have from time to time led to changes that have further strengthened the Instrument of Student Judicial Governance,” Sauls stated. “We always welcome the opportunity to meet with our faculty and hear directly from them.”
Calvin Deutschbein, chairperson of the Graduate and Professional Student Federation Senate’s committee on advocacy and oversight, said he developed a distrust in the Honor Courts while he taught a class of undergrads last summer. He said the system serves the interests of the University as opposed to those of students, and that the students running the system are held to no accountability.
“They’re just playing God with students who are reliant on the University to pay their rent every month and to be able to eat,” Deutschbein said. “It’s just really distasteful and not something I believe should exist.”
UNC has the only student-run honor system in the nation, aside from military academies, according to UNC Honor Court's official extracurricular page on Heel Life. The oversight committee Deutschbein serves at the head of, which was formed this year, has the power to submit a resolution recommending that the GPSF Senate recall, or remove, any individual it has appointed to a position.
Deutschbein said he intends to launch an investigation leading to a resolution for the removal of Graduate and Professional School Student Attorney General Courtney Bain from her position over the handling of Little’s case.
“This is a clear abuse of power – someone charging someone when there was no crime committed, unless you have a political motivation to consider it a crime,” Deutschbein said.
He also said that Kisha Patel, chairperson of the Graduate and Professional School Honor Court, may be subject to a recall, and that he thinks she shouldn’t have Pray as an Honor Court member at all considering his past activity regarding Silent Sam and other political issues.
Patel did not respond to a request for comment.
Todd Ochoa, a professor in the religious studies department, called the boycott an easy one to sign on to. He said he has observed the Honor Court as a troubled institution since coming to UNC, and that it reflects racial disparities in our criminal justice system at large.
“The Honor Court gives students experience, it gives students training, it gives students hands-on practice — but they’re actually judging students, passing consequences on others, and that’s where you have a serious problem,” Ochoa said.
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