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.
We as a community must … do a systematic evaluation of our culture to ensure that one of our founding principles– the pursuit of truth – remains a pillar on which we can stand. ….
I write you today in solidarity. I write you in great sorrow, great rage, but most importantly, with great determination. Meaningful change is necessary, and we can lead that change for all universities. We can demand that incidents like those described in Rolling Stone never happen and that if they do, the responsible are held accountable to the law. This will require institutional change, cultural change, and legislative change, and it will not be easy. We are making those changes.
Essentially embracing the philosophy of never letting a crisis go to waste, Sullivan pushed through the sexual-assault agenda that had been in the works since early in the year. She shut down the social activities of sororities and fraternities until Jan. 9, 2015, vowing to provide better oversight of alcohol consumption and safety of guests. The Board of Trustees adopted a policy of “zero tolerance” toward sexual violence. The university hired the law firm O’Melveny & Meyers to conduct a review of sexual assault at UVa and the university’s response to reported cases. Sullivan created an ad hoc group of students, faculty, administrators and stakeholders to “ensure the safety and well-being of students.” The group would focus on three main areas:
- Culture, including student behavior, Greek life, alcohol and other drug use, and student self-governance;
- Prevention, including bystander training, peer education and physical safety such as lighting, camera systems and policing; and
- Response, including institutional survivor support, training for students and faculty, and U.Va. policies and issues regarding adjudication.
This was very similar to the agenda articulated by the White House task force that Emily Renda had participated in. Even when the Washington Post essentially debunked the gang rape story, Sullivan did not relent in her commitment to the program. “Over the past two weeks our community has been more focused than ever on one of the most difficult and critical issues facing higher education today: sexual violence on college campuses. Today’s news must not alter this focus,” she stated Dec. 5, 2014.
Sullivan drove home the same message in the 14th annual Lighting of the Lawn celebration on that same night. University officials and student leaders elaborated on the theme. The secret Seven Society donated $58,000 to support programs like bystander intervention. A statement from the Society emphasized the need to change the student culture. “Very few of us have knowingly allowed a sexual assault to be committed. How many of us, though, have stood by while a peer was disrespected? While another was objectified? How many times have we shaken our heads at the bigotry that persists in our community – and then done nothing?”
On Dec. 8, 2014, Sullivan reiterated her determination to forge ahead: “I remain committed to a fearless examination of our culture and practices,” she said, in laying out an action plan. Summarized a UVa press release: “Sullivan said the well-being of students, especially survivors of sexual assault, remains the first and foremost concern — regardless of the ongoing scrutiny of the magazine’s account.”
What does it mean? In the foregoing account, we have stuck to the facts. While the evidence may lend itself to different interpretations, we draw the following conclusions from those facts:
- University of Virginia administrators were well aware of the gang-rape allegations long before they surfaced in the Rolling Stone article, going so far as to cite the incident in testimony to Congress. They accepted the veracity of the account and did not begin to check it until Rolling Stone’s Erdely started asking pointed questions.
- Despite discrepancies between Renda’s version of the gang rape story and the Rolling Stone version of the story — which grew more detailed and horrific — UVa administrators never expressed skepticism of the narrative. Sullivan did once refer to the gang rape as “alleged” when referring the case to the Charlottesville Police but proceeded as if the story was accurate.
- The university leadership used the horror of the gang rape story to mobilize university opinion behind the need to change the “culture” and practices regarding sexual assault. When the Washington Post debunked the story, Sullivan essentially said that it didn’t matter.
- Rolling Stone has been rightly excoriated for its catastrophic failure in reporting. Out of an excessive sensitivity toward the feelings of “Jackie,” Erdely did not seek to confirm her account either with friends or the alleged perpetrators. In so doing, the magazine perpetrated a hoax. However, little attention has been paid to the University of Virginia administration for perpetrating and acting upon the same hoax to advance its ideological agenda.
- Yes, Teresa Sullivan’s agenda is highly ideological, almost identical to the White House’s sexual assault agenda, which frames the problem in black-and-white terms as an epidemic of rape and a student culture of denial — as opposed to, say, a problem stemming from the drunken party hook-up culture that results in a spectrum of undesirable behaviors from sexual assault to regret sex.
Mass media and bloggers are finally picking at the edges of the Sullivan administration’s cynical exploitation of the gang-rape story to advance its agenda. Such attention is way overdue. While we believe we have helped to advance this line of questioning with this blog post, there is still much work to do.There are currently no comments highlighted.