U.Va.’s Real “Existential Crisis”

Protesting rape on "Grounds"

Protesting rape on “Grounds”

 By Peter Galuszka

One wonders why the University of Virginia, arguably the state’s most prestigious college, seems to be hit with one bit of horrible news after the other.

We’ve gone through the May 2010 murder of student Yeardley Love, 22, by another student, George Wesley Huguely V, a lacrosse player from a privileged suburban Washington suburbs that included study at Bethesda’s elite Landon School.

Just a few weeks ago, the remains of student Hannah Graham, 18, were positively identified after being found in a rural part of Albemarle County. Jesse Matthew, 32, a hospital worker, allegedly met with Graham near Charlottesville’s bar scene before she vanished.

And, we had the bizarre dismissal of U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan in 2012 at the instigation of Board of Visitors member Helen Dragas who complained that there was an “existential” crisis because Mr. Jefferson’s “academical” village had somehow fallen beyond Ivy Leagues schools in setting up online classes. Sullivan was reinstated after a massive outcry “On Grounds” which is Wahoospeak for “on campus.”

Now comes the latest zinger, an explosive Rolling Stone report about a student called “Jackie” who went to a party at Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and ended up being raped and otherwise sexually abused by seven young men. University officials didn’t seem to take the matter seriously – until now.

What is behind this seemingly endless run of bad news? Is the university’s attitude that it is too elite to deal with very serious problems? Are administration officials so out of touch that they don’t know what’s going on and don’t care because it doesn’t fit some kind of mindset? Full disclosure: I am the father of a U.Va. undergraduate, so my interest is personal as well as journalistic.

The school has scrambled with protests and meetings and the (rather pointless) one-month suspension of fraternity and sorority activities. They have come out with a new “zero tolerance” policy regarding sexual abuse, but one wonders why it hadn’t been done long before.

One of the most damaging reports available is not the Rolling Stone piece, but a video made by WUVA Online which interviewed Dean Nicole Eramo who is the administration’s point person on sexual abuse case adjudication.

It was conducted on Sept. 16, months before Rolling Stone’s splashy article (but that’s par for the course with the magazine which tends to jump to the head of the parade with news others have covered).

In the 21-minute-long video, Dean Eramo says that in 2013, she received 38 complaints of sexual abuse. After review by the Sexual Misconduct Board, only nine cases actually progressed for further adjudication. Eramo says that cases can be reported to the police which she noted, “have search warrants and the luxury of surprise.” In some cases, the perpetrators are suspended for one or two years or are expelled.

The interview had a big stunner. Eramo seems to say that the university, with its famous honor code, somehow regards cheating on a test as more important than raping someone. The student interviewer kept returning to that point again and again saying she did not understand the distinction. Eramo held firm, saying that she had answered the question.

It is huge point. Rape is usually considered a very serious felony that can bring prison terms from five years to life. Using a crib sheet on a philosophy exam is usually considered not great to do, but not in the same category as rape.

This is the heart of the matter for the University of Virginia community. It prides itself on its Honor Code but in doing so, things have gotten very much out of whack.

Rolling Stone has done the school a favor, albeit in its typically nasty way. Consider this rather snotty scene-setter:

“A chatty, straight-A achiever from a rural Virginia town, she’d initially been intimidated by UVA’s aura of preppy success, where throngs of toned, tanned and overwhelmingly blond students fanned across a landscape of neoclassical brick buildings, hurrying to classes, clubs, sports, internships, part-time jobs, volunteer work and parties; Jackie’s orientation leader had warned her that UVA students’ schedules were so packed that “no one has time to date – people just hook up.”

To be fair to the school, I must say that I have been “On Grounds” many times over many years and I have never noticed hordes of blond Super Students. Is Rolling Stone saying they are an Aryan race? That’s odd because 28.4 percent of the student body is non-white.  In any event, it is high time the University of Virginia got its head right.

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13 responses to “U.Va.’s Real “Existential Crisis”

  1. Pretty insightful Peter! Thinking about this for a while and having had a local high school bullying/assault incident – not reported to police and the response of the School officials was that they have a Policy Handbook – that they followed which said the did not have to report to the police – even though the State Code requires it.

    and I think that’s if not the crux – and important aspect of this in that the School has developed rules that extend behind school academic issues -like cheating – and the expansion of these rules put the University in the position of being an middle-man arbiter of potential criminal activity – and that role is pretty much decided by whoever the personnel are who really are acting in prosecutorial, even judicial roles – to – essentially subvert state law and the process that State law follows.

    An allegation of rape is not a crime against the School. It’s a crime against the state and the victim is entitled to due process accorded by the State, not the University…

    They got to this point by mission creep – they got on that slippery slope and slid down it – and now they are tap dancing …and basically in denial about the fact that real crimes have occurred that the University – handled differently than had they been referred to law enforcement.

    If the University was going to do this role – they needed to scrupulously follow the state law and when the state law threshold was reached – get out of it and refer it.

    If they had done that – it would have sent a strong message to these scum that basically depend on the school to buffer them from the full force of the law.

    and I bet – before this is all over with – that’s going to be the “new” policy.

    Finally – we’re in an era of blaming government and blaming institutions but neither of them do wrong – it’s the people that work for them that, for any number of reasons – make bad, inappropriate judgements – and in positions of power in the organization – once they successfully sell it to their peers or the people they report to – it becomes the accepted culture.

    We went through this in the past decades – with sexual harassment at work – and all the same arguments were being used by the guys.. and in the end – there was an epic smack down of the guys – and I predict we’re going to see another.

  2. With all the national attention full disclosure is coming. See these two articles.
    DEAN SEAL The Daily Progress
    The number of reported on-campus sexual assaults at the University of Virginia more than doubled between 2012 and 2013, according to an annual security report published by the school in late September.
    The data showed that 27 reported offenses occurred on Grounds in 2013, up from 11 the year before. Twenty additional offenses were reported to have occurred off Grounds last year, nine of which took place on public property.
    http://www.gvhlive.com/
    While all these responses from the university are generally positive and proactive in tackling the issue of sexual assault on campus, the sad fact is that this isn’t UVa’s first time at the rodeo. In 2003 a rape victim sued the school after university officials told her she would be expelled if she spoke publicly about the man who attacked her, even though he was found guilty by the university and still allowed to stay on campus and graduate. In 2004 a UVa student named Kathryn Russell gained notoriety after going public with complaints that the school had discouraged her from reporting her rape to the police. In 2008 the Department of Education ruled that UVa had violated the Cleary Act by requiring students reporting rapes to sign a nondisclosure form. Since 2011 the Department of Education has also been reviewing UVa’s compliance with a number of legal requirements for the handling of sexual assault.
    In short, the UVa administration has had a long documented history of failing to adequately handle sexual assault cases. The recent allegations published by Rolling Stone are thus just a continuation of UVa’s struggles with effectively combating sexual assault, rather than a shocking, out of character revelation.

  3. Section 18.2.-61(A) of the Virginia Code defines “rape” as “If any person has sexual intercourse with a complaining witness, whether or not his or her spouse, or causes a complaining witness, whether or not his or her spouse, to engage in sexual intercourse with any other person and such act is accomplished (i) against the complaining witness’s will, by force, threat or intimidation of or against the complaining witness or another person; or (ii) through the use of the complaining witness’s mental incapacity or physical helplessness; or (iii) with a child under age 13 as the victim, he or she shall be guilty of rape.”

    The Code also criminalizes other acts of sexual violence or those conducted without consent of the victim.

  4. A little consolation:

    At least UVa did not go stupid (like my alma mater, the University of Maryland) and join a Midwestern sports league it has no business being part of.

  5. Cheating on a test is not an illegal act. Rape is. Felonies should be investigated by law enforcement officers and prosecuted by competent courts. The guilty should be sentenced to prison terms.

    If a group of UVA students robbed a bank at gunpoint would the administration start a judicial review or would they just call the police? When Huguely murdered Yeardley Love did the university start an internal investigation? No, the police and the courts dealt with that.

    Hannah Graham might be alive today if administrators at the college where her accused abductor was expelled for sexual misconduct would have called the police instead of engaging in a kangaroo court proceeding.

  6. Even if we all agree that the University should not be handling cases of sexual assault, how have you missed the multiple stories and explanations of why Title IX FORCES universities to address it? Nicole Eramo is doing her best within an extremely narrow set of options imposed by the federal law. Whether the Sexual Misconduct Board properly handles the cases brought to them is a separate question, but it has been well documented that many women (including Jackie) do not wish to go to the police, but are willing to bring their case to Eramo. I offer that something needs to be done at a much, much higher level to support victims of sexual assault in going to the police to report the crime. Until that experience doesn’t feel like re-victimization, it’s a rather empty statement to declare that the University should be uninvolved and let the police handle it.

    • re: ” do not wish to go to the police, but are willing to bring their case to Eramo.”

      then it might be misplaced trust because the people they’re expecting to help them are not 100% dedicated advocates and actually have conflicting loyalties and duties as employees of the University that may well compromise the actual legal rights of the victims – and this is not really disclosed in detail as to what the “law” the University actually follows but rather has individuals – not schooled in the law actually acting in judicial roles…

      I just think it’s a concept that appears to be good but in fact – is compromised fatally when victims are themselves made the focus …

      we should let people experience in the law – made that call – not folks who are not who also are, in a sense, “representing” the interests of the University also. It’s an inherent conflict.

  7. One way to do this is to have a person wholly independent of the University – i.e. does not report to anyone in the University – and preferably a person school in sexual assault law…

    next – the independent advocate will keep a file with the names of those who were involved in reported incidents as well as the venues- and when new incidents are reported – check the archive list to see if there are the same folks involved in prior incidents and/or at the same venues.

    3rd – the independent person would know – precisely – the threshold – where the incident is reported immediately and irrevocably to police and a rape kit ordered or administered – even if the alleged victim is reluctant. That way the folks who want to report – will know it will be out of there hands at the point they walk in the door – and the consequences ….

    4th – everyone who attends the University KNOWs that the advocate IS independent and does not represent the interests of the University at all and is completely focused on finding out the specifics of the incident and that includes protecting the rights of the accused.

    • Totally respect the view but I still think that position is fatally compromised as long as the interests of the University can be asserted to her – as their employee.

      she needs to be fully independent – with no subordinate relationship to the University at all..

      only then can she truly and without concern for the interests of the University – focus on the alleged victim and accused.

      I just – no mater whether she is a likeable person or not – that her position – her duty – is compromised – I would rather see her as an employee of the Circuit Court than the University… with an office on the campus and no doubt in anyone’s mind who she is representing…

      the truth is – that every University/College has a different way to handle this – and the law – has one way no matter where.. it’s the same everywhere – the State Code.

      I support this woman doing this job. I’d like to see her have more independence and be totally free from the University hierarchy.

      • I’m troubled by the issue of independence. Independent of what? The reason we are discussing separate treatment of these offenses at all is that the University — nay, every resident school of higher education these days — has to coax our little darlings through a lot of growing up, where growing-up mistakes are made. That includes liquor (parenthetically I strongly agree, the drinking age should be 18, so that what goes on at every college party could at least be legal; so that what isn’t legal could be the subject of uniform enforcement applied to “gown and town” alike and not hidden from view when it happens on the Grounds). It isn’t the fraternities, it isn’t the booze per se, it most certainly IS the process of civilizing a bunch of kids some of whom are delightful and conscientious, some of whom are self-centered savages. Again parenthetically, these young adults are going to live a life surrounded by alcohol for better or worse; our universities would be incredibly remiss if they didn’t try to instill an adult perspective on social drinking, and that adult perspective sure isn’t abstinance. Sex is the same, only vastly more complicated and profound. And on that subject, most of us are at sea when it comes to modern mores — which don’t equate, IMHO, to “hookup culture” but do consider the more physical aspects a lot more casually and a lot more openly than in our parents’ (let alone, our own) University days.
        So, hire someone totally independent of the University to do all that screening of what is sexual misconduct and what is criminal including rape, and what standard is she going to use but, of course, the standard of the community beyond the pale? And that isn’t what parents and most taxpayers want from our Universities. They expect a finishing school in readiness for adult life, packaged with enough academics to get the kid a job. They don’t expect, or want, unforgiving enforcement of the very adult strictures we know they aren’t ready for, yet.
        So, damn, along comes misconduct we think is so heinous it doesn’t qualify for double standard treatment. Yet it’s on a spectrum with everyday conduct in the context of booze and partying and bullying and hormones and athleticism and new friendships, and even infatuation at times, and breakups. Sometimes it goes over the line, wherever that line is. And that line is almost always crossed without witnesses; he said/she said is the rule, not the exception. And sometimes it’s so far over the line that we jump to the conclusion that the University isn’t doing its balancing act well, that we should have “zero tolerance” for certain things. What things? What indeed are we now so “zero tolerant” of? Is that “the law,” all laws, or simply a few, and if that, which ones, and of those few do we mean in all circumstances or only when it’s really, really obviously over the line?
        I’m disgusted by all this and I too don’t see a clear way forward for the Visitors, but turning our leading state University into a muddle of political correctness with independent criminal overseers isn’t the way forward.

        • free from trying to serve two masters … much like in the military the person investigating allegations of rape of an officer whom the commander likes.

          it’s similar in a collegiate atmosphere where potential criminal activity occurring on the campus can call into question what the University did or or did not know what happened – and what the University did (or did not do) – once it become public.

          there is an essential conflict there – a conflict of interests.between the interests of the University and the interests of someone who may be a victim and the University has some culpability.

          The University will see that conflicts of that kind are a threat to the University if a blow up can harm them – and they will do what they have to – to protect their interests… and if you work for them and at the same time are supposed to protect the interests of others – you are forced to choose.

          jobs like that need to have clarity and if you as an employee or forced to choose – then in my view – it’s institutionally flawed … You should never be in a position where advocating for a potential victim – is potentially harmful to your employers.

  8. It’s a worthy suggestion, Larryg!

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