comscore University's image suffers after campus rape report | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Every act of aloha counts. Click here to DONATE to the MAUI RELIEF Fund.

University’s image suffers after campus rape report

Honolulu Star-Advertiser logo
Unlimited access to premium stories for as low as $12.95 /mo.
Get It Now

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. » The University of Virginia heads into an extraordinary meeting of its governing board on Tuesday struggling to find its footing, after a reported frat house gang rape rocked the university’s vaunted reputation and genteel self-image and unleashed complaints that it had mishandled and concealed sexual assaults for years.

The administration has drawn fire for its unsteady response to the issue and the report, published last week by Rolling Stone, most recently for a video of a dean acknowledging weeks before the article that even students who had admitted to sexual assault had invariably escaped expulsion — and that no one had been expelled for sexual assault in at least seven years.

Professors shelved lesson plans Monday to devote classes to dissecting the problem, as protesters kept up a string of demonstrations outside the white-columned, Federal-style fraternity house where the rape was said to have taken place two years ago. On a bridge nearby, a makeshift memorial to a freshman, Hannah Graham, who was murdered in September — the university’s most recent communal trauma — had been painted over with the message "Take back the party: end rape."

The article hit a campus that was already deeply unnerved by that murder, and where there are still fresh memories of the 2010 murder of a female lacrosse player, Yeardley Love, by a male lacrosse player, George Huguely V. Like those killings, the Phi Kappa Psi episode belies the picture of the university and its hometown as an old-school island of scholarship, safety, honor codes and etiquette, set apart from a grittier world, just as the university’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, might have envisioned.

The allegation of a brutal assault at one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious public universities puts Virginia squarely in the midst of a nationwide debate about campus sexual assault and the role of fraternities, and offers the latest example of administrators scrambling to deal with issues that had often been shunted aside in the past.

"The fraternity culture has to change, but I don’t know how it would, because the fraternity culture is such a big part of life here," said Annalise Gill, 18, a first-year student from Texas.

The Board of Visitors that governs the university has called a special meeting to discuss the matter Tuesday. In recognition of heavy public interest, it will gather in an auditorium rather than the small board room in the two-century-old Rotunda, where it usually meets.

The Rolling Stone article detailed what appeared to be the preplanned gang rape of a student in 2012 in an upstairs room of Phi Kappa Psi house, followed by a botched response by the administration. And it alleged that rape has long been an ugly undercurrent of the social system at the university, treated as an unfortunate byproduct of the school’s party culture whose eradication was less important than maintaining the university’s well-burnished image.

The topic was impossible to avoid on campus Monday, where some students handed out yellow chrysanthemums in a wan attempt to make people feel better about their school, and news cameras were planted outside the Phi Kappa Psi house. A reporter who walked to the front door was approached by two men who identified themselves only as "Biker" and "Cookie," and threatened to remove her if she knocked.

On the doors of Peabody Hall, which houses administrators’ offices, students had posted sticky notes with messages like "I wish I could leave" and "let’s do better." Lyra Bartell, who graduated in May, stood on the building’s steps with a camera and a whiteboard, and said she was making a photo project of people holding up the board with expressions of support for assault survivors.

At some universities that have faced allegations of sexual assault and fraternity misconduct, a sizable faction among the students have denied that there was a serious problem. There was little of that in evidence here, but students took pains to note that sexual assault is not limited to fraternities or to this campus.

At a gathering on Monday, leaders of student groups demanded self-examination and reform, and the president of the Inter-Fraternity Council, Thomas Reid, said, "It makes me personally sick to my stomach to make me think about what happened that one night in that specific fraternity house, and it disorients my understanding of this community."

The initial response to the article last Wednesday from Teresa A. Sullivan, the university president, drew fire from students and alumni who said it should have reflected greater revulsion and remorse. The Inter-Fraternity Council temporarily suspended Greek life, and made a statement calling its members "horrified, disgusted, and viscerally saddened," making it appear that the fraternities, themselves, reacted more strongly than the administration.

Sullivan later issued a much stronger statement, and on Saturday, she suspended all fraternity activity until January. But again, many people were not placated, as critics noted that the time covered by the suspension consisted almost entirely of holiday breaks and finals, when fraternity houses would have been relatively quiet anyway.

"Suspending fraternity events for this period is a farce," said John D. Foubert, a professor of higher education at Oklahoma State University who studies campus sexual assault, and is a former assistant dean of students at Virginia. Because of its insular culture, he said, his former employer has a worse sexual assault problem than most of its peers.

On Sunday, a student news organization, WUVA, posted a video online of an interview it conducted weeks ago with Nicole P. Eramo, the associate dean of students and chairwoman of the sexual misconduct board, who confirmed that there had been no expulsions for sexual assault in years, even when assailants confessed in informal conferences to resolve allegations. As a result, the university has punished offenses like cheating and stealing more harshly than rape.

Students who admit to sexual assault are showing remorse and unlikely to be repeat offenders, and victims often choose the informal route because, "they’re not looking for expulsion," she said in the interview. "They’re generally feeling quite satisfied with the fact that the person has admitted that they’ve done something wrong."

The uproar is getting attention well beyond Charlottesville.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., called the fact that admitted assailants are not expelled "shocking and outrageous," and demonstrates the need to pass a bill she co-sponsored to curb campus sex crimes. Congressional Democrats plan to hold hearings on the subject as early as next month, before power transfers to the Republicans.

Jennifer Steinhauer and Richard Pirez-Peqa, New York Times

Comments have been disabled for this story...

Click here to view ongoing news coverage of the Maui wildfires. Sign up for our free e-newsletter to get the latest news delivered to your inbox. Download the Honolulu Star-Advertiser mobile app to stay on top of breaking news coverage.

Be the first to know
Get web push notifications from Star-Advertiser when the next breaking story happens — it's FREE! You just need a supported web browser.
Subscribe for this feature

Scroll Up