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Melissa Harris-Perry: University president's remarks created 'hostile environment'

Host Melissa Harris-Perry sends her weekly open letter to Lincoln University president Robert Jennings, addressing his comments about campus sexual assault.

Every week, Melissa Harris-Perry offers her editorial comment on various issues. Below is her personal take on the controversial comments made by Lincoln University President Robert Jennings. Jennings's full apology is published below.

Last week in Atlanta, Emory University suspended all fraternity social activity after a woman reported being raped at a fraternity Halloween party. Here on MHP we have reported about the many universities under fire for their failure to respond adequately to sexual assault on their campuses. But Emory responded swiftly. The university’s Interfraternity Council issued a statement that read, In part:

“This pause will give our community time to reevaluate how we address the intolerable issues of sexual violence, substance abuse, and discrimination on our campus.”

If administrators at Emory are setting the standard of how to respond to the epidemic of sexual assault on campus, Lincoln University leadership transformed itself into an icon of failure as a result of the words of its president at an all-women’s convocation in September. His words became public this week.

“We have, we had, on this campus last semester three cases of young women who after having done whatever they did with young men and then it didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to turn out, guess what they did? They then went to Public Safety and said, ‘He raped me.’ “

And he was not done. He went on to say this:

“Don’t put yourself in a situation that would cause you to be trying to explain something that really needs no explanation had you not put yourself in that situation.”

And that is why is my letter of the week goes to Lincoln University president Robert Jennings.

Dear President Jennings,

It’s me, Melissa.

I noticed that after a firestorm of protest about your comments at the all-women’s convocation in September, you issued an apology. You wrote:

“My message was intended to emphasize personal responsibility and mutual respect. I apologize for my choice of words. I certainly did not intend to hurt or offend anyone.”

Personal responsibility? Well how about you take personal responsibility for failing your students. Your words show an utter lack of respect or empathy for the women who pay up to $11,000 a year to seek an education at Lincoln University. Women who come to college expecting an opportunity to learn and grow.

Women who are protected under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which ensures that all students are able to pursue their educational goals free of violence, harassment, and hostility and mandates that when a college knows about a hostile environment, they must take immediate action to eliminate it.

Well, President Jennings, it is you who created that hostile environment when you blamed women for sexual assault and implied that they regularly lie about rape. What you said was offensive, appalling and wrong. A woman always has a right to say no. It doesn’t matter if it is late, if she is in his room, if they’ve been on a date, even if they have had sex before. A woman has a right to say no. If she is forced to have sex even when she says no, it is rape.

And a woman must actually say yes. If she’s been drinking and can’t say yes. If she is unconscious and can’t say yes. If she is sick and can’t say yes. If she is being threatened or hurt and can’t say yes, and she is still forced to have sex, it is rape.

When you suggest otherwise in such a public setting and when you to take more than two months to offer a half-hearted apology, well President Jennings, not only are your words shockingly ignorant, but also, your words disgrace the legacy of your school, Lincoln University–our nation’s first degree-granting historically black college. And your words undermine the legacy of Lincoln alumnus Thurgood Marshall.  Marshall’s ground-breaking career was committed to protecting, not shaming, the vulnerable and seeking justice, rather than offering excuses, for those who are predatory.

And your words degrade the legacy of Lincoln alumnus Langston Hughes, who used language to give voice to those who are rarely heard, rather than to silence them with accusations and blame. And speaking of silence … that was just five seconds of silence. Five seconds maybe of confusion. Five seconds of wondering when words would be spoken again. Five seconds of feeling a little uncomfortable. Five seconds of worrying about what would happen next.

President Jennings, you implied that an “accusation of rape” could ruin a young man’s life. Maybe what you need to think about is what an “act of rape” can do to a young woman’s. And you should be held accountable for encouraging survivors to be silent. For telling them they would not be believed. That they would be subjected to your scrutiny and disrespect. Five seconds of silence changed everything about this letter. What would a lifetime of silence change about a life?



[Editor's note: Jennings’s letter to Lincoln University students is published in its entirety below.]

To Students of The Lincoln University:

It is obvious that I did not clearly communicate during a portion of September’s All Women’s Convocation. My message was intended to emphasize personal responsibility and mutual respect. I apologize for my choice of words. I certainly did not intend to hurt or offend anyone. 

First, let me say I have the utmost respect for each and every one of you. I view us as an extended family and want nothing but your personal and professional success.

Let there be no misunderstanding on my second point. Sexual misconduct will not be tolerated at The Lincoln University. I am committed to creating an environment where you can excel as a student and grow as a young adult. I strongly encourage you to report any concerns of sexual misconduct to University Police or the University’s Title IX Coordinator, Dr. Lenetta Lee. The University will vigorously investigate any report of misconduct.

At the beginning of this school year, you participated in an informational session on sexual misconduct. These sessions were held to emphasize the services available and the process for reporting sexual misconduct. In the coming days, the University will hold additional sessions to reinforce our commitment to your safety and to answer any questions you may have. Student Affairs will provide the details of these sessions.

The University is a center of learning and I assure you that I have learned from this process. I will choose my words more carefully. But make no mistake, my commitment to your education and safety is stronger than ever.

Thank you for being part of The Lincoln University.


Robert R. Jennings