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How UVa’s President Changed Her Tune on Sexual Assault

The University of Virginia’s initial response last week to an article in Rolling Stone magazine detailing a student’s rape in a fraternity house was slammed by critics as insufficient. While the college’s president, Teresa A. Sullivan, wrote a letter promising a review of the student’s claims, the lead investigator chosen to conduct the review was an alumnus of the fraternity in question. The state’s attorney general nixed the choice.

A group of faculty members signed a letter in response to Ms. Sullivan’s message demanding that immediate action be taken to make clear “that violence against our students will not be tolerated.”

Within just a few days, the administration adopted a starkly different tone. On Saturday, Ms. Sullivan wrote a second letter to the campus in which she announced that all fraternities would be suspended until early next year.

The shift in tone can be seen most clearly by examining Ms. Sullivan’s two statements side by side. Here are three important ways she changed her tune:

1. She became less defensive.

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In the first letter, above, Ms. Sullivan opens with the phrase “negatively depicts,” making it seem as if what was at issue was only a matter of appearances. She then writes that she cannot talk about the case for legal reasons, but offers the defense that the female student did not tell the college everything. In the next paragraph, Ms. Sullivan writes that sexual assault is a problem “across the nation,” not just in Charlottesville, Va.

The overwhelming takeaway is that this is a college president defending her university amid a public outcry. In the second letter, she adopts a different stance:

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First, Ms. Sullivan accepts the article’s claims. She condemns sexual assault at the University of Virginia and everywhere else. And, tellingly, she does say the college is “better than we have been described,” but uses the message as a call to arms rather than a simple defense. She even invokes Thomas Jefferson (“It is more honorable to repair a wrong than to persist in it.”) to reinforce the message.

While in the first letter Ms. Sullivan refers only to “sexual violence” and “sexual misconduct,” in the second letter she calls it “rape.”

2. She made it personal.

In the first letter Ms. Sullivan uses the word “we” more than “I” and refers to students frequently as “them”:

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In the second letter she embraces “I” and “you” for a more direct appeal:

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Ms. Sullivan writes that she, too, feels the toll of the revelations and that she hopes she and students can unite in that spirit to improve the college’s response to sexual assault.

3. She looked ahead.

In the first letter Ms. Sullivan spends three paragraphs describing things the university has already done or planned to do to prevent sexual assault:

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In the second letter she announces new steps—the suspension of the fraternities and discussion at a Tuesday meeting of the Board of Visitors—and asks students to join her in action:

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The new steps described by Ms. Sullivan place her in a better position to ask for engagement from the whole community.

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