A student's story of being gang-raped at a 2012 fraternity party at the University of Virginia, recounted in detail in an article in Rolling Stone last week, has shaken the university and prompted renewed debate over campus culture, the fraternity system and U.Va.'s response to allegations of sexual assault.
The article is not the first report of rape at a Virginia fraternity, or the first instance of a woman coming forth to talk about feeling that the institution did not respond adequately to a rape allegation. And similar reports have been made, of course, about many other universities. But the Rolling Stone article -- perhaps because of the detail both about the assault and the way the victim felt deserted by the university and many of her classmates -- has had a major impact.
In the five days since the article appeared, the campus has seen multiple protests, vandalism of the fraternity named in the article, statements from multiple campus and political leaders, the scheduling of a board meeting to discuss sexual violence at the university, and the suspension of all fraternities until Jan. 9. Further, more women have come forward to say they were raped at the university. The article has set off intense scrutiny of whether university leaders are doing enough.
Two statements released by President Teresa A. Sullivan illustrate how discussion has changed at the university in a short period of time.
On the day the article was released, Sullivan released a statement in which she defended the university's efforts on sexual assault issues and stressed its commitment to protect all students. That first statement announced that she would call for an investigation of the incident described in the article, but many on campus criticized her tone for what some saw as a lack of empathy with the violence that a U.Va. student had experienced.
Wrote Sullivan in the first statement: "I am writing in response to a Rolling Stone magazine article that negatively depicts the University of Virginia and its handling of sexual misconduct cases. Because of federal and state privacy laws, and out of respect for sexual assault survivors, we are very limited in what we can say about any of the cases mentioned in this article. The article describes an alleged sexual assault of a female student at a fraternity house in September 2012, including many details that were previously not disclosed to University officials. I have asked the Charlottesville Police Department to formally investigate this incident, and the university will cooperate fully with the investigation."
Many comments on the university's Facebook page were negative. Sullivan was criticized for failing to use the word "rape" in her statement and for instead using the phrase "sexual misconduct." Some said that her reference to details that the university didn't previously have suggested that she was blaming the victim. Many comments called for immediate stronger action.
Sullivan's statement on Saturday had a different tone. It referenced the article in ways that suggested it was correct, used the word "rape," and expressed much more personal anger.
"The wrongs described in Rolling Stone are appalling and have caused all of us to reexamine our responsibility to this community. Rape is an abhorrent crime that has no place in the world, let alone on the campuses and grounds of our nation’s colleges and universities. We know, and have felt very powerfully this week, that we are better than we have been described, and that we have a responsibility to live our tradition of honor every day, and as importantly every night," she wrote.
Sullivan added: "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."
She also announced that she was suspending all fraternities and their social activities until January 9. A spokesman for the university said that the suspension covers all social events and programming, but does not require those living in Greek houses to move. He noted that the university does not own the fraternity houses.
Comments about the Saturday statement were generally more supportive than were the comments on her first statement. But efforts to investigate the report on what happened in 2012 have been difficult to get off the ground.
The university's rector (board chair) on Thursday announced that, in consultation with the state attorney general, the university would name Mark Filip, an alumnus and lawyer who formerly was a prosecutor, and deputy U.S. attorney general, to lead an independent investigation into what happened in 2012. But only a day later, the university and attorney general agreed that they would need another candidate to lead the review because Filip had been a member of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity described in the Rolling Stone article.
The fraternity, meanwhile, has given up its charter with the university, effectively suspending itself. In a letter the fraternity published in The Cavalier Daily, the student newspaper, the fraternity said that it did not have knowledge of what happened at that 2012 fraternity party. But the letter added: "Make no mistake, the acts depicted in the article are beyond unacceptable — they are vile and intolerable in our brotherhood, our university community and our society."
Several student protests have focused on a culture in which some say women are degraded by the fraternity system. A "slut walk" protest (modeled on those at other campuses) made the point that women do not consent to sex by dressing in any particular way or by attending fraternity parties.
Some at the university haven't been satisfied to wait for formal punishment of the fraternity. People spray-painted comments such as "Suspend Us!" and "UVA Center for Rape Studies" on the Phi Kappy Psi house.
An anonymous student group sent letters to local news organizations claiming responsibility for the vandalism, and defending the actions.
"We wish that the recent Rolling Stone article regarding the culture of rape in the university’s Greek system had come as a shock. Unfortunately, as students, we are all too familiar with the rape and assault that is ubiquitous on Rugby Road," said the letter, referring to the area that houses many fraternities. "We have been assaulted, our friends have been assaulted, and the university -- students and administrators alike -- continue to minimize the problem. The administration has consistently failed to take the drastic steps that are necessary to halt the epidemic, and the students go about their lives complacently, tolerating the abuse. Rapists go unpunished and wander our campus -- our campus, where they haunt their victims and even openly mock them. We are fed up with it."
The letter included several demands, including "an immediate revision of university policy mandating expulsion as the only sanction for rape and sexual assault."
The issue of appropriate punishments for sexual assault (as determined by colleges, not the judicial system) has been debated at many colleges. At U.Va., as at many colleges in recent years, the university is considering changes to its rules involving sexual assault. A current draft says that, in all cases in which someone has been found guilty by a university panel, the punishments of suspension or expulsion must be considered. But the new draft does not mandate those punishments, and others could be community service, completion of educational programs, evaluation by a mental health professional or financial restitution.
Part of the controversy at Virginia is that the university, famously, has an honor code for which expulsion is the "sole sanction" for lying, cheating or stealing.
The contrast between "sole sanction" for nonviolent offenses and a range of punishments for sexual assault is part of what has drawn attention to the university, as opposed to other institutions. The Rolling Stone article quoted the mother of a U.Va. student who reported a sexual assault as saying this: "Think about it," she said. "In what world do you get kicked out for cheating, but if you rape someone, you can stay?"
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