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UVA president on rape controversy: 'We will lead'

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan spoke briefly to students Monday about the ongoing controversy on the university's handling of sexual assault.

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, under fire for the institution's handling of sexual assault allegations, spoke briefly to students Monday afternoon, saying, "Our university has been placed at the center of this crisis. We will not shrink from it. We will lead."

Last week, Rolling Stone published an explosive account of the university's culture of impunity around rape and fraternities, featuring a devastating story of a gang rape. The article said that administrators were aware of the allegations that a freshman had been gang raped at a fraternity party, but had done nothing. It described a practice of stonewalling around the actual number of reported assaults, for fear of being labeled, as one administrator allegedly put it, "the rape school."

"The behavior depicted is not something we will accept as normal, and the actions by seven men as described in the story have betrayed us. We have a problem, and we are going to get after it," Sullivan said.

The Rolling Stone article depicted a culture on campus of covering up or shrugging off rape allegations even as academic offenses like plagiarism result in expulsion, all under the guise of maintaining the school's image. But Sullivan drew on the community's cultural pride in her remarks. "This is a community of determination and resolve, and we embrace change when change is needed," she said. There is a piece of our culture that is broken and I ask your help in coming together as a strong and resilient community to fix it." She added, "Our founder Thomas Jefferson reminds us it is more honorable to repair wrong than to persist in it." 

"We will not stop until every student feels safe and secure and free to work and live and grow," Sullivan said. 

Sullivan's event with students was livestreamed on the university's website, but the first half was inaudible due to a technical issue. The student newspaper, Cavalier Dailytweeted from the room that Sullivan discussed the role of binge drinking, saying, "Alcohol does not cause rape" but can be "a tool of a predator." 

She took questions from the audience, members of whom asked about whether there would be a task force (possibly, and possibly more than one) and what the role of the women's center would be (they have recommended an additional trauma counselor.) 

Sullivan canceled a planned appearance at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. A spokesman for the university said in a statement that "during this extraordinary and difficult time for UVA, President Sullivan’s energies are best focused on our grounds, where she can speak directly to and hear directly from our university community, participate in the healing process, and work to find answers to the many questions that deserve attention."

Related: Questions follow in wake of UVA rape allegations

The UVA board called a meeting discuss campus rape last week, ultimately passing a resolution stating a policy of zero tolerance toward sexual assault. After a three-hour discussion, the board also announced that the violence prevention organization Green Dot would begin bystander awareness training in January. 

“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 director, at that 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.”

The university has suspended all campus fraternity activities until the end of the year. “Sexual violence is a very serious issue in the Greek system, but it’s a very serious issue and it’s much larger and much more complicated than the Greek system itself,” the president of UVA’s Inter-Fraternity Council told reporters last week.  

A video has emerged showing Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo — who plays a prominent role in the Rolling Stone article — acknowledging several UVA students had been suspended, rather than expelled, after admitting to sexual assault.

The federal government was already investigating the university for possible violations of Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in education, and the Clery Act, which requires reporting of on-campus crimes to the government. UVA is one of a smaller number of campuses under a stricter “compliance review” by the federal government, suggesting deeper and broader concerns.