Students

An Author's Take on Campus Sexual Assault: 'Universities Seem So Quick to Protect Their Brand'

Henny Garfunkel, Redux

Jon Krakauer: Universities seem “so willing to abandon the welfare of their students to protect their brand. And I assume that’s kind of unconscious and just kind of reflexive.”
April 22, 2015

Jon Krakauer's new book, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, asks a tough question about sexual assault: How are so many student victims mistreated or even ignored by law-enforcement agencies and, to a lesser degree, by their colleges?

The author's search for an answer involved a protracted open-records dispute with Montana's commissioner of higher education, a case that currently sits with the state's Supreme Court. In the end, Mr. Krakauer explained in an interview on Tuesday, what he learned about how colleges deal with sexual assault was not at all encouraging. Following is an edited version of the conversation.

Q. What’s the most surprising or interesting thing you learned about higher education from your research for this book?

A. I learned a bunch of discouraging things. I learned how universities seem so quick to protect their brand — I mean, so willing to abandon the welfare of their students to protect their brand. And I assume that’s kind of unconscious and just kind of reflexive. And part of this is, I was sort of shocked by the way Ferpa [the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act] has been misinterpreted and misused to avoid accountability.

And I've got to say that the University of Montana had a lot of problems with its adjudication of sexual assaults, but it was actually pretty good largely because the dean of students, Charles Couture, was really adamant about removing offenders from the campus. He was really diligent, stood up to the administration, but it sort of hinged on that one guy.

But he retired. One of the problems with the University of Montana: Its effectiveness in removing those found guilty of sexual assault hinged on a single, dedicated dean of students, and a system like that, it’s not a good system.

Q. Since 2011 the White House and the Departments of Education and Justice have put a heavy emphasis on the role of colleges in handling sexual assault. Why does your book focus more attention on the failings of the criminal-justice system?

A. Actually, I think it does focus on the university. The focus of my book was to show what it’s like from the victim’s point of view to be raped, to try to get accountability through the criminal-justice system and the university system.

The University of Montana was not a good example of what’s wrong with the university system because [Mr. Couture] was very zealous. I didn’t want to go down a prescriptive rabbit hole about what needs to be done. And I sort of dodged it by saying the university system is really messed up, it really is in need of repair, and it needs to be done on a nationwide level. I kind of left it at that rather than go into the fine print, off in the weeds. That was sort of a narrative decision.

Q. Is it really possible for colleges to handle these situations without having the same investigative powers as law enforcement?

A. I really have a problem with people who say "universities have no business adjudicating rape cases; you have to turn them over to the criminal-justice system." And my problem is that the criminal-justice system is simply not up to the task. It will not remove very many rapists.

The criminal-justice system is so careful to protect the rights of the accused … But [when a college expels a student for sexual assault,] you’re not incarcerating anyone, you’re not putting anyone on a list that will haunt them for the rest of their life as a sexual offender. …

If you falsely accuse someone, that’s a huge stigma. And that’s right, that’s why you have to exercise extreme care before you expel anyone. On the other hand, if you don’t expel a rapist … and that student remains in school, now that victim not only is forced to suffer the trauma of that rape without any accountability, but she is stigmatized as a liar. That is at least as devastating as falsely accusing a perpetrator.

Moreover, it happens vastly more often that women — and men, but mostly women — are raped and the rapist is not held accountable … than men are falsely accused of raping women. That’s unarguable. I would challenge anyone to show me that’s not true.

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.