04/11/2013 11:59 am ET

UNC-Chapel Hill Alumni Address Recent Sexual Assault Scandals, Academic Fraud In Letter To School

A group of alumni from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sent a letter to the school's administrators and governing boards Wednesday voicing frustration about how recent campus scandals may damage their alma mater's reputation.

Jonathan Tarleton, a 2011 UNC graduate, told The Huffington Post that he began a discussion with other alums this spring about ways to speak out about the sexual assault and academic fraud scandals that have plagued the school. They decided to send a letter, which already has 155 signatures, to UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp and President Thomas Ross, as well as the school's board of governors and board of trustees.

"We felt the need to break our silence as members of the larger UNC community and to express our deep concern with what were, to us, challenges that arose from a fundamental corruption of the founding values of the university by some sections of our community," Tarleton said. "We are tired of seeing UNC in the news not as the stellar institution it is, can be, and has been, but as one wracked with scandal."

UNC is currently under two federal investigations for how it handled sexual assaults, including allegations it did not accurately report campus crime statistics and did not provide a "proper response to campus sexual assaults and the adjudication of such offenses." The investigations come on the heels of a probe that revealed in December that students, particularly athletes, were given artificially high grades in the Afro-American Studies department.

The letter outlines a few ideas on how to address the recent controversies, including providing comprehensive sexual assault prevention education to all students and staff, and holding anyone engaged in academic fraud accountable.

"We endorse you to lead: in maintaining the true meaning of the student-athlete, in preserving the integrity of the University’s core academic mission, and in fostering a safe culture and campus," the letter says.

UNC is currently reviewing its sexual assault policies and hired Pennsylvania-based attorney Gina Smith to advise the school on that process. It's also implementing academic reforms outlined in two independent reviews.

Hannah Friedman, a 2011 graduate who signed the letter, told The Herald Sun that it's "not intended to scold the university in any way."

"We stand with the university in what is a difficult time," she said.

Tarleton commended UNC for acknowledging the scandals as serious problems, but said he believes the university could be "more forthcoming with information that would make clear the full extent of its missteps." He also said that Thorp's decision to step down as chancellor at the end of the 2012-13 academic year leaves room for significant changes at the school.

"I do think a new chancellor could provide leadership that would allow for a less biased perspective, having not been fully caught up with the challenges for the past few years," he said.

The UNC Board of Governors is scheduled to elect a new chancellor Friday.

Read the letter below:

UNC Board of Governors

UNC President Ross

UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees

UNC Chancellor Thorp

UNC Administration, Professors, Students, and Alumni

Dear UNC Community,

Young alumni maintain a unique relationship with Carolina. While we are scattered across the world – researching in China, studying at Oxford, writing in New York, coding in Palo Alto, or teaching just down the road in Warren County – our memories of Chapel Hill are still fresh and vital. They have not yet been wholly tinged by nostalgia, reduced to idyllic afternoons on the quad, evenings in the Dean Dome, and early mornings in Davis. The challenges we confronted, setbacks we suffered, and unique joys we celebrated as students live with us. They are fodder for our current inspiration and future success. Some of us are now just beginning to plant ourselves elsewhere, and all of us are continually building new communities that we hope will rival the friendships, mentorships, and home we were so privileged to find at our beloved alma mater.

This proximity has made the University’s many recent challenges all the more painful and concerning. We do not claim an exceptional perch from which to judge these missteps, but having been, not so long ago, the bright, rough kids just sensing the depth and seriousness of the Carolina Way, we are especially troubled by the path our university has taken in recent years. The uncovering of improper conduct within the football program, entrenched academic fraud, and grave mishandling of sexual assault cases on campus has rightfully monopolized our customary place in the public spotlight. The pride in UNC’s community engagement efforts and pioneering research which usually graces headlines has been displaced by embarrassment wrought through the corruption of our fundamental principles. As alumni we ask ourselves, was this our university?

It was, and it is. These issues, as we have seen, are not simply current problems but ongoing challenges that very much existed while we were students. Many of us learned what rape culture was at UNC. Whether through class, HAVEN trainings, student organizations, or its too prevalent manifestation among our peers, we knew it existed, and many of us fought against it. Our Honor Court has long adjudicated cases of academic fraud, if not so blatant and widespread. Few alumni could truthfully say that they did not suspect some misconduct within our athletic department. This knowledge was further augmented by the prevalence of the same specters with which we grapple at our peer institutions and across higher education generally.

Such is why, just as we have in clean water solutions, oral history, entrepreneurship, and cancer diagnosis and treatment, we endorse you and the University as a whole to once again lead in solving these problems. Carolina has confronted many boundaries to progress in its history and consistently overcome them. Such times of economic uncertainty call for proactive leadership that will allow our university to continue to fulfill its duty to the state of North Carolina, and this is yet another opportunity to employ the spirit of Carolina in improving our community while acting as a mentor for the world. We would be remiss to forego acknowledgement of the exceptional work already completed to move forward, progress that has its foundation in student organizing and the dedication of university faculty and staff. Listen to these voices already seeking to guide you.

Humbly, we as young alumni ask to be included in the conversation and to contribute to the solutions. With that in mind, we strongly urge you to consider the following recommendations and steps forward:

    The core of our university is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. As students, we had the privilege of working alongside professors and peers in this pursuit, and maintaining the environment, quality, and standards that made our experience possible is of the utmost importance. Academic fraud in any form sullies our ability to successfully engage students, faculty, and the community. The University must, without regard to influence or notoriety of the responsible party or negative publicity garnered, hold anyone engaged with academic fraud at the University accountable.
    We are fully aware of the storied place Carolina athletics has in the history of the University and its culture. While we all hope Carolina will continue to bring us joy on the hard court and grassy fields, such success cannot be traded for academic integrity. The University must strictly apply Carolina’s overall standards for academic admission to all student-athletes and ensure that these students pursue meaningful academic careers while at Carolina. As much is warranted to preserve the health of the University and the personal development of the student-athletes themselves.
    Sexual assault is not only a dreadful crime and incredibly harmful to individuals, it damages the fabric of our community and linkages of trust necessary to form a safe environment for growth and learning. The University must implement substantial reforms to protect and support all students, including but not limited to providing comprehensive sexual assault prevention education to all Carolina students, faculty, and staff, fully accepting and acknowledging its complicity in creating a hostile environment for victims of sexual assault, and removing any staff found to have encouraged suppression of incidences of sexual assault.

We endorse you to lead: in maintaining the true meaning of the student-athlete, in preserving the integrity of the University’s core academic mission, and in fostering a safe culture and campus.

Though we are the alumni closest to the University in chronology, we understand that current students, faculty, and staff are those most engaged with the everyday implications of these challenges today, and we are keenly aware of the remarkable minds and hearts Carolina has at its disposal to move forward. We fully affirm this leadership.

As young alumni, we may not have the financial resources traditionally used by the larger postgraduate community to show support for the University, but we do have a responsibility and a voice, and we will be loud and clear in our demands for a university based on integrity: the university that Carolina continually aspires to be. Do not be mistaken: our involvement is not about preserving our diploma or mere embarrassment at swallowing the stumbles of our alma mater. We speak up because Carolina must fulfill its role as a guide in a challenging future, a beacon of acceptance and justice: the light on the hill.

With love,

UNC Young Alumni:

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