Emily Renda attending a White House function on sexual assault earlier this year. Image captured from Renda’s Instagram account and posted by the 28 Sherman blog.
by James A. Bacon and Reed Fawell III
On June 20, 2014, five months before the publication of a devastating article alleging a gang rape at the University of Virginia, Emily Renda, an employee of the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs, testified on sexual assault issues before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. The young woman, a self-identified victim of a campus rape, recounted her extensive activism against sexual violence, including work with a young woman identified by the pseudonym Jenna.
Jenna was gang-raped by five fraternity men early in her freshman year. Despite the severity of the assault and injuries she sustained, Jenna still experienced a feeling of personal responsibility. Looking for affirmation, she sought out peers and told her story. Sadly, each and every one of the friends she reached out to responded with varying denials of her experience; these responses worsened her feelings of self-blame. ….
When she finally sought assistance from the Dean of Students’ office, after struggling and nearly failing out of her classes for two semesters, it was difficult for the university to conduct a meaningful investigation because much of the evidence had been lost and witnesses were more difficult to locate.”
The story differed in some respects from the gang rape story that led off the explosive Rolling Stone article, “A Rape on Campus,” which used the pseudonym of “Jackie.” In Renda’s understanding, Jenna/Jackie had been raped by five men, not seven as reported by Rolling Stone. In Renda’s version, Jenna/Jackie sought out her peers to tell her story; in Rolling Stone, she contacted them immediately after the rape. But in both tellings, Jenna/Jackie’s friends responded by discouraging her from reporting the incident. Both versions of the traumatic episode reinforced a national anti-rape narrative that a student “culture” of denial perpetuated an epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses.
Soon after Renda testified to Congress, Rolling Stone Contributing Editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely started researching a lengthy expose of sexual assault on college campuses. At some point, she connected with Renda, who granted an interview in which she described her own ordeal and commented upon the student culture of indifference toward sexual assault victims. Renda also connected Erdely to other sources, including “Jackie.”
Renda has not publicly commented upon her objectives in collaborating with Erdely on the article, but there is every reason to think that she hoped for a positive treatment of the University of Virginia’s ongoing efforts to grapple with sexual assaults. In February, the university had sponsored a national event, “Dialogue at U.Va.: Sexual Misconduct Among College Students,” that brought together national experts and professionals from some 60 colleges and universities to discuss prevention and response. Over the following three months, she traveled to the White House five times to participate in an administration task force to “protect students from sexual assault.” During the time Erdely researched her article, UVa was already implementing some of the recommendations contained in the White House report, “Not Alone.” Indeed, the Hoo’s Got Your Back initiative, designed to encourage bystanders to intervene and stop sexual assaults, provided the backdrop of one of the vignettes in Erdely’s article.
But Erdely had a very different agenda. Rather than highlight UVa’s anti-rape activism, she launched the November 19, 2014, article with a horrifying tale of a gang rape of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, painted UVa as a place where rape had been prevalent for decades, and portrayed the university administration as more concerned with protecting its reputation than in achieving justice for the victims of sexual assaults.
It’s not clear when UVa officials got wind of Erdely’s intentions, but by September, Erdely was asking pointed questions about its sexual-assault policies. According to emails acquired by the Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act, the university shifted into damage control mode. University officials canceled an interview Erdely had set up with Nicole Eramo, head of UVa’s Sexual Misconduct Board and mother confessor to many victims of sexual assault. They also blocked access to Claire Kaplan with the Women’s Center. Instead, communications officers insisted that Erdely interview university President Teresa Sullivan.
It wasn’t until the magazine asked probing questions that UVa officials began digging deeper into the gang rape allegation that had circulated widely within the university and Renda mentioned in her congressional testimony. Wrote Erdely:
Within days of the [September 12, 2014, Board of Trustees] meeting, having learned of Rolling Stone’s probe into Jackie’s story, UVA at last placed Phi Kappa Psi under investigation. Or rather, as President Sullivan carefully answered my question about allegations of gang rape at Phi Psi, “We do have a fraternity under investigation.” Phi Kappa Psi national executive director Shawn Collinsworth says that UVA indeed notified him of sexual assault allegations; he immediately dispatched a representative to meet with the chapter. UVA chapter president Stephen Scipione recalls being only told of a vague, anonymous “fourth-hand” allegation of a sexual assault during a party. “We were not told that it was rape, but rather that something of a sexual nature took place,” he wrote to RS in an e-mail. Either way, Collinsworth says, given the paucity of information, “we have no evidence to substantiate the alleged assaults.”
“Under investigation,” President Sullivan insists when I ask her to elaborate on how the university is handling the case. “I don’t know how else to spell that out for you.”
When finally published in November, the article included “many details” about the gang rape that ” were previously not disclosed to University officials,” Sullivan said in her first public response. University Rector George Martin reiterated the point in a statement released the next day.
Despite the horrific nature of the charges and the differences with the earlier version to which Renda testified before Congress, neither Sullivan nor Martin questioned the veracity of the Rolling Stone account. Announcing that she’d asked the Charlottesville Police Department to investigate the incident, Sullivan declined to comment upon the gang rape “out of respect for” the privacy of the sexual assault survivors. Otherwise, she emphasized ongoing initiatives to combat sexual assaults, including the February conference on sexual misconduct, the Hoo’s Got Your Back initiative, a Not on Our Grounds campaign, a new student sexual misconduct policy, and an upcoming campus climate survey.
The gang-rape allegation may have been a disaster for UVa’s reputation, but it did galvanize the university community into supporting the sexual-assault initiatives that had been underway for months. “The wrongs described in Rolling Stone are appalling and have caused all of us to reexamine our responsibility to this community,” Sullivan stated in a Nov. 22, 2014, message to the university community.