The full breadth of confusion over how to respond to an epidemic of sexual violence at the University of Virginia (UVA) was on display Tuesday during a special, public meeting convened amid the fallout over a Rolling Stone article that shed light upon the school’s rape culture.
After three hours of discussion, the board passed a resolution stating a policy of zero tolerance toward sexual assault. It also announced that the violence prevention organization Green Dot would begin bystander awareness training in January. Additionally, school administrators have asked the Charlottesville police to investigate a 2012 case of gang rape, described in brutal detail by Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, in the magazine’s most recent issue. The board has also hired a law firm to act as independent counsel.
"I’d like to say to [the victim] and her parents I am sorry, and to all survivors of sexual assault, I am sorry," said George Martin, the board’s rector, at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting. "As we said last week, this type of conduct will not be tolerated at the University of Virginia. The status quo is not acceptable. Like all of you gathered here today, I am appalled."
Though everyone in attendance Tuesday expressed a strong commitment to making UVA safer, students and the Board of Visitors -- a panel which sets the university’s budget and policies -- at times clashed over areas related to Greek life, alcohol, and the best approach to creating an environment that will not foster sexual misconduct.
The meeting took place at UVA’s Albert & Shirley Small Auditorium of the Harrison Institute, rather than in the Rotunda’s small board room, where members usually gather. Almost immediately into her introductory remarks, senior Ashley Brown -- head of One Less, the on-campus support group for sexual assault survivors -- called out the Board of Visitors for not providing an adequate level of attention to the crisis until it was made public in last week’s harrowing Rolling Stone piece.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen the Board of Visitors in person,” Brown said. “This is the first time anyone has ever approached us, and asked us as experts, as advocates, as those entrenched so deeply and so passionately in this work, ‘Hey, what do you think?’ And for that, I am deeply disappointed.”
Board Rector George Martin assured her that she had his support now. But the exchange, peppered with snaps of approval from student activists in the room, illustrated what critics decry as an administration that sweeps rapes under the rug to preserve its own self-image.
UVA President Dr. Teresa Sullivan pushed back against this characterization, stating Tuesday that nothing was more important to her “than the safety of our students -- not our reputation, not our success, and not our history and tradition.” In response to the Nov. 19 Rolling Stone article, which detailed a horrific account of gang rape at the popular UVA fraternity Phi Kappa Psi, Sullivan suspended all Greek life until Jan. 9.
Though there are UVA faculty members pushing for the abolition of Greek life on campus, according to emails obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, a permanent ban on fraternity activities did not come up in Tuesday’s meeting as a viable solution. Rather, Tommy Reid, president of UVA’s Inter-Fraternity Council called for deep, cultural reforms within the Greek system so that it could be used to promote greater change throughout the university.
“Sexual assault is a serious cultural problem in fraternities,” said Reid repeatedly throughout Tuesday’s meeting. However, he added, “the Greek system, through all its faults, has structures of governance and accountability in place right now that make it possible for our community to be the safest on grounds.”
Alcohol came up several times as a point of disagreement among the students and board members. As chair of UVA’s alcohol and abuse prevention team, senior Hawa Ahmed stressed that while drinking was a contributing factor in almost every sexual assault, it was not a causal factor.
“When we say that alcohol causes sexual assault, we send the message to young women -- often the victims -- that they should not get drunk and put themselves in danger,” said Ahmed. “It is crucial that we move past this and not blame our victims, for it is never their fault.”
But Bobbie Kilberg, who serves on the Board of Visitors, argued there could not be any kind of solution to campus sexual assault without a crackdown on underage drinking.
“The fraternity council is not providing, in my opinion, even a partial solution unless you simply ban -- and I repeat, ban -- all alcohol service in fraternities to anyone under the age of 21,” she said.
UVA is among nearly 90 colleges currently under investigation by the federal government over its practices regarding sexual assault on campus. In the past year, a number of students have come forward listing multiple alleged violations of federal laws, including Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits sex discrimination in any school that receives federal funding, and the Clery Act, which requires schools to accurately report statistics about on-campus crimes to the government.
Though the U.S. Department of Education has said that sexual harassment and sexual violence against students are forms of sex discrimination prohibited under Title IX, no school has ever lost federal funding for violating the statute.
Board member Stephen Long struck something of a defensive posture during Tuesday’s meeting, reminding attendees that sexual assault was “not uniquely a University of Virginia problem.” “This is a national problem that extends far beyond these grounds,” he said. “The article didn’t give credit to the leadership role that our students, our faculty, our administration, our president have exhibited over the last years on the pending crisis.”
Still, despite that fact that UVA may not be alone on this front, the overwhelming takeaway from Tuesday’s meeting was that the school must do more to keep its students safe. Unable to sleep the night before, senior Jalen Ross, president of the student council, said he walked to a memorial for Hannah Graham, a UVA student who was killed earlier this school year, to reflect.
“When we set that up, I wrote to her that she already had, and she would continue to make this a better place, a closer family, and stronger people,” said Ross. “It’s fallen to us to live out that charge.”