Tradition in the Cross Hairs as Rape Allegations Rock UVa

AP Photo/The Daily Progress, Ryan M. Kelly

George Keith Martin, rector of the U. of Virginia's Board of Visitors, speaks at the board's special meeting on Tuesday. The university's president, Teresa A. Sullivan, is at right.
November 26, 2014
"Grandiose references to the grand tradition of honor tend to deny the fact that [UVA] was a school only for men."
Is UVa's leadership capable of making significant reforms to address problem of sexual assault?

Honor wasn’t enough this week at the University of Virginia. An article by the magazine Rolling Stone, detailing the brutal gang rape of a freshman woman at a fraternity party in 2012, has blown a hole in the institution’s storied legacy as the genteel "academical village" founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819.

The article, published on November 19, hit at the end of a difficult semester at the institution, which has dealt with heightened scrutiny about safety after the killing of a sophomore, Hannah Graham, whose body was found last month, weeks after she disappeared.

But more than that event, the Rolling Stone article has touched a raw nerve on the campus, sparking outrage from students and alumni who say the university has too long ignored the problem of sexual assault in order to preserve a veneer of respectability.

"I’m sick of hearing a lot about the culture of honor, both among fellow alumni and statements by … the administration," said Haley Adams, a 2011 graduate of Virginia. "It’s part of this self-congratulatory sense of UVa exceptionalism that prevents us from taking a more-critical look at the kinds of flawed institutions that allowed a situation like this," said Ms. Adams, who now attends law school at New York University.

Faculty members were shocked by the article, but also disappointed in some of the responses from UVa’s president, Teresa A. Sullivan, whose first statements about the article were criticized as tone-deaf and technocratic.

Many also stressed that the university had done quite a bit to strengthen its policies dealing with sexual assault as it responded to increasing pressure—from the White House, state and federal lawmakers, victims’ advocates, and others—to crack down on sexual violence. But the early missteps by the UVa administration have raised concerns about whether the president and governing board can make significant reforms, such as stricter rules for fraternal organizations, whose activities have been suspended until the spring semester.

"Many of us are concerned about what is going to happen in the spring," said Susan Fraiman, a professor of English who has been an advocate for changes in the university’s policies on sexual assault. "I would really not want that the suspension is over and now it’s business as usual," she said. "We need a strong signal that things on Rugby Road"—where the fraternity houses are located—"are going to be different."

Campus in Crisis

This week, however, the campus was awash in a river of emotions: anger, grief, frustration, and dismay among them.

On Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving, students and community members gathered outside the hall where the Board of Visitors would soon meet, holding signs and chanting demands for change. Nearby, the door of the office of the dean of students was covered by an ad-hoc memorial to rape victims—Post-It notes scrawled with personal testimonies of sexual assault and calls for the administration to act.

Haley Boschert, a second-year student, surveyed the notes with a friend. She said she had heard a range of opinions about the Rolling Stone article. Some friends were glad it raised awareness about sexual assault, but others were upset because they felt it had unfairly tarnished the university’s reputation.

Ms. Boschert falls into the former camp. Safety is a concern among students, especially freshman girls, who feel, she said, that "you have to go to the frat parties to experience first year."

Nazar Aljassar, a sophomore, stopped by to look at the notes.

"I’m still discouraged by the amount of people who are more concerned with the PR disaster this article has generated than that peers of mine at this institution are facing issues associated with rape culture," he said.

Inside the Board of Visitors’ meeting, called specifically to deal with fallout from the magazine article, protesters silently raised signs whose slogans included "fight the patriarchy" and "honor and tradition are not my ideals."

Thomas Reid, president of the university’s Inter-Fraternity Council, acknowledged that "sexual violence is a problem in fraternities and the Greek system. We don’t want to hide that."

The magazine article had been a "wake-up call," said Mr. Reid, and was causing the entire student body to examine its culture. "Our university is in the wilderness," he said.

Ashley Brown, a fourth-year student, told the board she wasn’t surprised by the article. "We have been working for years, trying to educate our peers," said Ms. Brown, president of a campus group, called One Less, that advocates for sexual-assault survivors.

Until now, however, the group had never been consulted by the board, she said. "This is the first time I’ve ever seen the Board of Visitors in person," Ms. Brown said. "This is the first time anyone has approached us."

"I was pissed," she said in an interview after the meeting. "I couldn’t hide that."

Missed Messaging

Faculty members, too, are trying to mobilize and use the moment to bring about change in the university’s culture.

"We have shifted very quickly from an outpouring of shock and grief to action," said Denise Walsh, an associate professor of comparative politics. "Faculty members realize that this is their time to act," she said.

Ms. Walsh has been working to improve the university’s response to sexual violence since the 2010 murder of a student, Yeardley Love, by her boyfriend, who was also a student.

"What has been missing is a community galvanized around this issue, willing to listen and act," said Ms. Walsh. "That is no longer the problem."

But Ms. Walsh and others said they had been let down by a week of messages from leadership that missed the mark.

On Wednesday of last week, President Sullivan issued a statement referring to the "magazine article that negatively depicts the University of Virginia and its handling of sexual-misconduct cases."

Without expressing any sympathy for the victim described in the article, Ms. Sullivan went on to cite "federal and state privacy laws" that limited what the university could say about the incident.

Ms. Walsh said the university community was "looking for a response from the president that would convey our collective grief and rage, and affirm that the university would now do everything in its power to right this wrong, support all survivors, challenge the culture of sexual assault wherever it exists, and take action to rebuild the trust in our community that has been shaken."

On their own, faculty members circulated a petition saying they were "heartbroken and enraged" by the article. "The extreme violence that was reported is shocking and demands an unequivocal response that we will not tolerate violence against our students," the petition said.

A second statement from Ms. Sullivan, issued on Saturday, mentioned "honor and tradition" and the university’s founder, Jefferson. That, too, sent the wrong message to some.

"I would like to see a little bit less of Thomas Jefferson," said Ms. Adams, the recent alumna. "The excessive quoting, the grandiose references to the grand tradition of honor that started with Thomas Jefferson himself, also tends to deny the fact that it was a school only for men, founded on slave labor."

Many were also put off when the rector of the Board of Visitors, George Keith Martin, appointed a former federal judge to investigate the alleged rape and the institution’s response to it. The appointment was quickly nixed after it was learned that the judge had been a member of a chapter (at a different university) of the fraternity involved, Phi Kappa Psi.

Ms. Sullivan isn’t the only university president who has come under fire recently over their campus's response to allegations of sexual assault. In the past year, Sally Mason, president at the University of Iowa, and Michael R. Gottfredson, then president of the University of Oregon, have found themselves heavily criticized for the timing or tone of their messages after controversies on their campuses.

The litigious nature of society often pushes campus presidents to speak in terms that sound like a legal brief, said Margaret Dunning, managing partner at Widmeyer Communications, a public-relations agency. Just like a corporate leader trying to protect a company from a lawsuit and preserve its share price, college presidents sometimes try to protect the institution’s reputation and fund raising, she said.

"What we tell our clients is to speak from the heart and be true leaders," Ms. Dunning said.

Moving Forward

At Tuesday’s meeting the messages seemed clearer, as the Board of Visitors adopted what it referred to as a "zero tolerance" policy toward sexual assault, though the details of that policy are still to be determined.

Mr. Martin, the board’s rector, started the meeting with an apology to the victim of the alleged gang rape, identified only as "Jackie" in the magazine article.

"To Jackie and her parents, I say I am sorry," Mr. Martin said. "To the survivors of sexual assault and their families, I am also sorry."

In her opening remarks, Ms. Sullivan said: "I want to make it perfectly clear to you, and to the watching world, that nothing is more important to me than the safety of our students."

But many advocates remained uncertain about how far the university was willing to go to carry out Ms. Sullivan’s pledge.

The institution has finished a draft revision of its policy dealing with sexual assault—the document was released on the same day the Rolling Stone article was published—and is soliciting comments.

Emily Renda, a recent alumna who now works on sexual-assault policy as a project coordinator in the student-affairs office, is responsible for reading and analyzing the responses, which currently total more than 250. Themes that have emerged, she said, include anger about the Greek system, confusion about Title IX procedures, and frustration that students found responsible for rape are not automatically expelled.

"Public comments are coming in from a wide spectrum of student years and community members," Ms. Renda said. "I think it’s touched everybody. I think that’s a good thing."

But there are significant hurdles to changing anything that involves tradition at the University of Virginia, including its reputation as a party school and the Greek system, which has a degree of independence from the university.

Students told the Board of Visitors that a ban on drinking at the fraternities would just push the behavior underground, where it would be harder to control.

"The idea is not to stop the party but to make the party safe," said Ms. Fraiman, the English professor.

Limiting the activities of fraternal groups could be much harder, given the Greek community’s support among some members of the Board of Visitors.

Stephen P. Long, a board member who was a member of the Kappa Alpha Order as an undergraduate, stressed the service and leadership of fraternal organizations and urged the board not to make any hasty decisions.

"Many members of the Greek organizations feel they are wearing a scarlet letter," he said. "We can’t indict those who are not to blame."

Most of the talk at the meeting was not about preserving old ways, but about change.

The university must not have a "tone at the top" that makes tradition a higher priority than safety, said L.D. Britt, another board member. After the proposed resolution was read, Mr. Britt suggested the addition of a new concluding line.

"There will be no traditions deemed sacred if it puts our students in harm’s way," he said.

Around the room, people nodded in agreement.

Ms. Koenig reported from Charlottesville, Va., Mr. Kelderman from Washington, D.C.