Skip to content

University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Smith leads campus conversation about sexual assault to engage, educate University community

Carolina’s ongoing conversation about sexual assault and how to improve the way it is addressed is reaching every corner of campus. Because the issue affects the entire University community, developing a solution calls for engaging everyone on campus, said Gina Maisto Smith.

Last month Smith, a former prosecutor, educator and consultant who has guided several institutions including Amherst College, began leading a series of community meetings designed to engage and educate the campus community about sexual assault. She is soliciting feedback and ideas campus-wide as well as providing information.

The volatile issue of sexual assault is not unique to Carolina, she said. Colleges and universities across the country grapple with how to respond to sexual misconduct in a way that is prompt, equitable, thorough, reliable, impartial and supportive.

In higher education, sexual assault falls under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (banning sex-based discrimination), as directed by the U.S. Department of Education. Sexual harassment of students, including acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX, Smith said, and a school has an obligation to investigate sexual harassment and violence, whether or not there is also a police investigation.

Title IX also requires a school to provide remedies to complainants, she said. This can include academic and housing accommodations, no-contact orders, counseling and support, and other measures designed to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence and address its effects. In many instances, these services surpass what is typically available in the criminal justice system.

“Unlike those in society at large, college students enjoy a federally mandated parallel process to the criminal option that will address their support needs, their academic needs, their counseling needs and their adjudicative process needs,” Smith said.

While Title IX may provide the legal framework, its requirements reflect societal values, she explained. “It isn’t just about complying with the law. It’s about how we tend to our students, faculty and staff to best serve them at a difficult time – to integrate the law with how we deliver our services to students,” Smith said.

Chancellor Holden Thorp has called sexual assault one of the greatest challenges facing campuses nation-wide, including Carolina.

“We’re focused on the safety of our students, as well as faculty and staff, and have an obligation to do everything we can to provide the care and support they need if a sexual assault occurs,” he told the campus community.

Smith spoke with the Gazette about this national issue and how she is helping Carolina leaders implement a process that is legally compliant and serves the well-being of the campus community.

Why are colleges across the country grappling with sexual assault and harassment?

Every college and university struggles with this issue. Residential college and university administrators in particular deal with a challenging constellation of circumstances: young adults, social challenges, alcohol and drugs, and concentrated residential living with no parental oversight. This is exacerbated by a complex set of legal requirements and the unique, incendiary and often counter-intuitive dynamics of sexual misconduct. 

In practical terms, colleges must investigate and respond to all allegations of sexual harassment and sexual violence, allegations that often involve word-against-word credibility assessments.  Schools must offer support and resources to all students involved in an allegation, provide a fair process to both complainants and respondents, comply with federal privacy regulations and balance campus safety with a student’s individual right to choose how to proceed, including a request not to proceed or to maintain confidentiality.

Put simply, colleges and universities are charged with complying with a complicated legal framework, informed by a myriad of federal, state and local laws.  A successful University response is one that integrates the regulatory framework with the unique dynamics of sexual misconduct and the individual campus culture, history, climate, policies, personnel and resources.

What is the 2011 Dear Colleague letter?

In April 2011, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a “Dear Colleague” letter directing that every college and university receiving federal funds review its policies and procedures and implement changes as needed. It both provided a roadmap for schools to understand the nature of their Title IX responsibilities and showed a commitment to step up expectations and federal enforcement efforts.

The “Dear Colleague” letter was a call to action that reinforced the Department of Education’s commitment to Title IX. It laid out the specific Title IX requirements applicable to sexual violence and informed schools about how the department would evaluate whether they are in compliance.

Among other areas, that guidance included the responsibilities of the Title IX Coordinator and components of compliant responses, enforcement, grievance procedures, remedies, education, training and prevention efforts (see go.unc.edu/Cg4p8).

Is sexual misconduct unique to college campuses?

No, what we see in the college setting is a microcosm of what we see in broader society. The same issues that plague college students are the issues society at large struggles with: barriers to reporting, complaints about the thoroughness and competence of investigations, victim blaming, claims that the process is not fair and concerns that the support services do not honor the dignity a human being should be afforded in the aftermath of sexual violence.

We also know that sexual misconduct is grossly under-reported everywhere, so the reasonable inference is that a majority of the complainants remain silent and continue to live among us.

What can be done to address this?

We need to do a better job of recognizing and removing barriers to reporting so individuals who experience sexual misconduct can get the support and resources they need. That doesn’t always mean the case has to go to criminal law enforcement, and it doesn’t always mean it has to go to student discipline. It means we need to create an environment where students feel supported in getting the services they need and have access to resources and information to help make those difficult decisions.

The silver lining of the challenge presented by Title IX, the “Dear Colleague” letter and this conversation we’re having at Carolina is the elevation of the issue into public consciousness.  The discussions we are having on college campuses will benefit broader society. We are teaching the next generation of leaders to understand the impact of discrimination on the basis of sex. We are also demonstrating how to prevent, recognize and respond to the issue of sexual misconduct. 

I believe this awareness will positively impact how human beings interact and will highlight the importance of treating every person with dignity and respect.

Is Carolina unusual in initiating a campus-wide conversation on the topic?

Yes. While the issues are not unique to Carolina, the response is. The cross-section of the UNC community that has freely engaged in this conversation is remarkable. Your chancellor, your faculty, your staff and your students (representing a wide variety of interests and groups on campus), have given their time to be a part of the discussion. UNC is one of the few campuses where I have seen this kind of an all-out coordinated effort to engage the community.

Students on all sides of the issue have shared their views with me and expressed their opinions. Your students are bright, introspective, tenacious and articulate! They are passionate about their beliefs and are earnestly engaged in this effort.

Although this is an issue that has traditionally been cordoned off as a women’s issue, I have seen a significant representation of young men and members of the LGBTQ community engaged in the conversation here at UNC. This issue affects everyone, and the engagement at UNC reflects that awareness.

Why is it important to bring everyone to the table?

The only way to shift the culture around this issue and improve understanding is by a coordinated engagement of the community. That is Chancellor Thorp’s goal.

It is evident that the University cares very deeply about student welfare and is listening with an earnest intent to support students and assess how best to serve them. I want to give people a safe place to be heard and an open forum to speak.

The conversations provide valuable information about the current state of the campus community’s understanding of and concerns about the University’s response to sexual misconduct on campus. With this information, I can tailor responsive recommendations for coordinating and implementing policy that is not only compliant, but that also compassionately serves the campus community.

How can people express their views?

In addition to the open sessions, there is a suggestion box on the Campus Conversation website where anyone can submit an anonymous idea, concern or suggestion.

In our group conversations, we have distributed index cards and asked people to list their priority, concern, issue or worry as well as their best idea for changing the culture. We want to tap into the creativity of our students, faculty and staff and get the fingerprints of the community on this effort; that engagement will give our efforts more traction.

What outcome do you want for Carolina?

A campus perception about the University’s response to sexual misconduct that matches realistically effective and supportive systems focusing on student well-being. The key objective is student well-being. Chancellor Thorp has said this, and every level of the administration has echoed it.

Through these conversations, I hope to provide a measurable change in increased awareness about the issue of sexual misconduct in the campus setting. It is my goal to bring clarity and fluency to the campus community about what sexual harassment is, how we can identify it, what we can do if we experience it or observe it, how it affects all of us, what support and reporting options are available and how to prevent it. 

It is also my goal to help the University develop seamless systems to implement a supportive and fair institutional response to sexual misconduct. 

What options do students who experience sexual assault have?

A student who has experienced sexual assault has the right to a prompt and equitable resolution of a complaint by the University. That includes access to resources and support options, a fair and impartial investigation, resolution by a trained adjudicative body and any appropriate interim measures to protect the complainant and assist in maximizing educational opportunities.

A complainant has the right to balanced support, equal access to documents and information, and notice of the outcome or resolution.

The person may choose whether or not to seek law enforcement action in the criminal justice system. If so, the school will assist in notifying law enforcement and will cooperate in a criminal investigation. It is the complainant’s choice, however, whether to take that route. There is no requirement that a sexual assault complaint in the university setting be sent to law enforcement.

Who oversees this process?

Every school is required to have a Title IX Coordinator who oversees the school’s response to complaints of sexual harassment or violence. At Carolina, the Title IX Coordinator is supported by a Deputy Title IX Coordinator and a dedicated Title IX Investigator. Ew Quimbaya-Winship is the Deputy Title IX Officer/Student Complaint Coordinator, and Jayne Grandes is the Title IX Investigator in the Equal Opportunity/ADA Office.

Ew is available to meet with students, assist in accessing resources and support, implement interim remedies and provide information about procedural options.

Any final thoughts?

Compliant policy alone is not sufficient; the delivery of service is key. It’s the mechanics of implementation and a dedication to serving the well-being of students, faculty and staff that makes the difference. And you have that at Carolina.


Sexual assault resources available both on and off campus

Anyone dealing with an imminent life-threatening situation, including sexual assault, should:

Anyone who has experienced physical or sexual assault, especially within the last 72 hours should contact:

After business hours, students should contact the Department of Public Safety (919-962-8100) and ask to speak to the on-call Dean of Students for assistance accessing any of these services.

The Dean of Students office (919-966-4042) can also help with changes in housing or work/class schedules, no-contact orders, academic help and as a guide to options and resources.

Students can go through both the legal system and the University. They are separate processes.

To press charges for an on-campus assault, contact the Department of Public Safety, (919-962-8100).

To press charges for an off-campus assault, contact:

To file a complaint under University policy, contact the Student Complaint Coordinator, Ew Quimbaya-Winship, Deputy Title IX Officer, 919-966-4042

Off-campus resources include:

For additional resources, see the Campus Conversation website.