by James A. Bacon
Reed Fawell III and I generated a furious response yesterday when we posted a detailed account of how the University of Virginia administration used Rolling Stone magazine’s infamous gang rape story to galvanize support for what we described as an “ideological” agenda for combating sexual assault on campus.
Fellow blogger Peter Galuszka chastised us: “You guys go through a faithful narrative and then blow it by accusing Sullivan of ideology. You offer absolutely NOTHING to back this up. I am afraid this dumps you into the category of right wing nuts who want to use Rolling Stone’s flawed story to disabuse humanity that there may be a problem of sex abuse on campus and that it is the scheme of overwrought feminists.”
Regular reader and commenter Larry Gross also unloaded with both barrels: “You betrayed your partisan perspective where you seek to blame Sullivan and the White House. … You guys cannot seem to help yourselves… everything leads back to ‘liberals’, the POTUS and progressivism.”
Actually, we never mentioned “feminists” or the “POTUS” in our article. We simply noted the ties between the UVa administration and the “White House.” Peter and Larry were the ones connecting the dots, not us. But if they want to go down that road, let’s see where it takes us.
There are two important questions here: (1) How closely does UVa’s approach to combating sexual assaults on campus track the recommendations of the Obama administration, and (2) to what extent is that approach driven by ideology? Before delving into the weeds, let me define what I mean by “driven by ideology.” I mean that there was no attempt to gather, weigh or otherwise analyze the facts. Rather, the White House/UVa administration imposed a pre-existing, left-wing narrative upon the issue, and its recommendations flow from that narrative.
Sexual assault and violence against women has been an ongoing concern at the University of Virginia for many years, as it has for many universities across the country. Between 1998 and June 2014, the university’s Sexual Misconduct Board held 26 hearings, with 13 ending in findings of guilty and one admission of guilt prior to a finding, according to a university statement. Offenses ranged from rape to stalking and sexual harassment. The university also had been subjected to a number of lawsuits and charges that the administration was not doing enough to protect women’s rights, as argued in the Title IX: Campus Accountability blog. As early as the summer of 2011, the University of Virginia began working with the federal Office of Civil Rights to review policies and practices regarding so-called Title IX sexual misconduct.
The University ramped up its efforts to address sexual misconduct early in 2014. Pulling in speakers and attendees from around the country on Feb. 10-11, the “Dialogue at UVa: Sexual Misconduct Among College Students” conference examined a range of problems, from stalking to date rape, from the sex-without-strings hook-up culture to the complexities of adjudicating sexual assault cases. Among the outside participants was Catherine E. Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights who heads the Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
Less than three weeks previously, President Barack Obama had established a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The mission was to “develop a coordinated Federal response to campus rape and sexual assault.” The concrete deliverable was to be an “action plan” that detailed best practices and measures for success and prevention.
Emily Renda, an anti-rape activist who had been sexually assaulted her first year at the University, participated in the sexual assault task force as a UVa representative. A fourth-year student, she had been selected in December 2013 through a “highly competitive process” as a “special intern” in the office of President Teresa Sullivan. She traveled to the White House at least five times to take part in task force activities. Upon graduation at the end of the semester, she would take on a staff position at the university’s Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs. In that position, she would go on to testify before a Senate committee on the subject of sexual assault, and to speak for the university in media appearances as varied as NPR and MSNBC’s PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton.
In April, the White House task force published its report, “Not Alone,” summarizing its findings and recommendations. “One in five women is sexually assaulted in college,” stated the report. “Most often, it’s by someone she knows –and also most often, she does not report what happened. Many survivors are left feeling isolated, ashamed or to blame.” The report issued four sets of recommendations, including one for the federal government and three for colleges and universities. The latter included:
- Campus climate surveys. “The first step in solving a problem is to name it and know the extent of it – and a campus climate survey is the best way to do that. We are providing schools with a toolkit to conduct a survey – and we urge schools to show they’re serious about the problem by conducting the survey next year.”
- Preventing sexual assault and engaging men. “Prevention programs can change attitudes, behavior – and the culture. … Most men are not perpetrators – and when we empower men to step in when someone’s in trouble, they become an important part of the solution. … We are also providing schools with links and information about how they can implement their own bystander intervention programs on campus.”
- Response to sexual assault. Colleges need to have someone to whom victims can talk in confidence and who will fully inform them of their options for redress.
- Sexual misconduct policy. Schools need to define what does and does not constitute consent to sexual activity.
- Special training. The Justice Department will provide training programs that inform college and university personnel about special issues associated with sexual-assault crimes. “Unlike other crimes, victims often blame themselves; the associated trauma can leave their memories fragmented; and insensitive or judgmental questions can compound a victim’s distress.”
- School disciplinary systems. The task force also raised the issue of colleges’ adjudication process for handling sexual assault cases, which sometimes subject victims to “harsh and hurtful questioning” by people “unschooled in the dynamics of these crimes.” The Justice Department will assess different models for investigating and adjudicating campus sexual assault cases “with an eye toward identifying best practices.”
So, how does UVa’s sexual assault reforms compare to the White House document? On Dec. 8, 2014, Sullivan detailed her “action plan” to “achieve a comprehensive and sustainable climate of safety” at UVa. Key elements included:
- Campus climate surveys. UVa is planning to conduct a climate survey this spring “to gather greater insights into the occurrence of sexual assault on Grounds, and to gauge student understanding of University policies.”
- Preventing sexual assault and engaging men. The University will expand “bystander training” for faculty and students in concert with existing initiatives such as ‘Hoos Got Your Back.'”
- Response to sexual assault. The university will bolster its counseling services and expand trauma response staff services offered by the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center.
- Updated sexual misconduct policy. The university updated its sexual misconduct policy, previously revised in July 2011, to take into account recent guidance from the Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Education. The changes, required by the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, took effect July 1.
- Special training and school disciplinary systems. Sullivan listed “response” as one of the university’s “three key issue areas.” Response to sexual assault encompasses “institutional survivor support, training for students and faculty, and UVa policies and issues regarding adjudication.”
The UVa action plan encompasses virtually every recommendation included in the White House “Not Alone” report. That’s not to say that Sullivan’s plan is a carbon copy of the report. Sullivan went further than the White House recommendations by temporarily suspending the social activities of sororities and fraternities, calling for revisions to Fraternal Organization Agreements governing the relationship between the university and the Greek organizations, highlighting the contribution of drinking to sexual assaults, and addressing physical safety through lighting, security cameras and an elevated police presence. But those differences are entirely additive to the report. Sullivan does not deviate from the White House recommendations in any significant way.
In support of these reforms, the university has hired O’Melveny & Myers LLP at the behest of Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring. A three-person team will investigate UVa’s response to the gang-rape and other allegations contained in Rolling Stone magazine, evaluate university policies and “assist the board” in determining what “cultural and institutional changes” need to be made. That team includes Walter Dellinger, a former assistant U.S. attorney general who argued a Supreme Court case that expanded Title IX protections to protect those who report sex discrimination; Danielle Gray, who held a variety of positions in the Obama administration; and Apalla Chopra, who leads the firm’s labor and employment practice.
In summary, we can safely state that the UVa administration (a) had begun seriously pursuing sexual-assault reforms by early 2014, (b) participated in the task force that created a template for reforms nationally, (c) implemented or announced its intention to implement all major proposals and recommendations in the task force’s “Not Alone” report, and (d) will be overseen by an independent legal team whose members are associated with Obama administration sexual-assault initiatives.
Reed and I are not “blaming” Sullivan or the White House for anything. We are making a factual statement: Teresa Sullivan’s response to the Rolling Stone article has been to implement a set of recommendations and proposals virtually identical to those emanating from the White House task force on sexual assault. Anyone who denies the White House-UVa connection is so hopelessly blinkered in their thinking that they cannot be taken seriously.
I will concede, as Reed and I did in our original post, that our argument that Sullivan’s reforms constitute an “ideological agenda” is more controversial. Having fully documented the first of the two propositions articulated above, I will address the second in a future post, hopefully tomorrow.There are currently no comments highlighted.