By Marti Maguire
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has less than three weeks to respond to a probe by federal education officials into allegations of wide-ranging problems with the way the school handles sexual assault cases.
A complaint filed in January by five women claims that reports of sexual harassment and assault have not been properly investigated by the state's flagship public university.
The women, who include current and former students and a former administrator, also accuse the school of suppressing information regarding the prevalence of such incidents.
In an open letter to the campus community on Friday, university Chancellor Holden Thorp said the school would cooperate with the investigation by the U.S. Department of Education.
"In fact, we welcome it," he said. "Our response will show how the university has made significant changes in the past 18 months about how sexual assault complaints are handled."
The allegations against the school have prompted campus rallies and drawn national attention, particularly since one of the women in the complaint said she was accused of violating the school's honor code after speaking out about her alleged rape.
University officials said they have no control over charges made by the student-run Honor Court and deny that the school was retaliating against the student for filing the complaint.
Another woman in the complaint, who has publicly identified herself as a victim of sexual assault, compiled the stories of dozens of students whose similar claims she says were dismissed or downplayed by university officials.
"I was hearing stories almost every day, and I was the only one listening to them," student Andrea Pino said in an interview broadcast by the WRAL television station.
The March 1 letter announcing the investigation by the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights was released by UNC officials this week. Administrators have been asked to provide a detailed listing of all sexual harassment complaints, university policies and training materials by March 21.
The department said its decision to investigate did not suggest that a determination has been made about the merits of the complaint.
Thorp, whose tenure has been marred by revelations of academic fraud related to student athletes, has pledged to improve the school's handling of sexual assault cases before he leaves for a new job at Washington University in St. Louis this summer.
The University of North Carolina has hired a nationally recognized expert in sexual assault issues to hold discussions with students, teachers and staff over the next several weeks.
"To make meaningful changes that will improve how sexual assault is addressed at Carolina, we must have an open and honest dialogue," Thorp wrote in his letter on Friday.
"Sexual assault is one of the greatest challenges facing campuses across the nation, including Carolina, and it is an issue that I am committed to addressing before I leave office," he said.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)