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Commentary & Opinion

Karen Hitchcock: “…A Renewed Call to Action” Apparently Gone Unheeded

Early this year, a Report was issued by the White House Council on Women and Girls with the startling finding that one in five of our nation’s female students have been sexually assaulted. Since that time, this oft-repeated statistic has been called everything from “appalling” and “tragic” to “overblown” and “inaccurate.” Wherever an individual falls on that continuum of reactions, I think all would agree that even one incidence of sexual assault is too many.

Unfortunately, the “Call to Action” urged by this White House Council Report has, clearly, in some quarters gone unheeded. The recent situation at the University of Virginia, one of our nation’s most prestigious universities, is a case in point. A young woman has alleged that in 2012 she was gang-raped by seven young men in the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. However, faced with the concern of her friends about the consequences to the university of reporting this and their advice, therefore, to keep silent, coupled with the lack of a response to this possible threat to campus safety from campus administrators she eventually spoke to, this young woman did not file formal charges. Two other women have now made similar accusations against members of the same fraternity.  After the woman discussed these issues – without attribution - with Rolling Stone magazine and after a thoughtful and probing article appeared, the University finally decided to start an investigation of this fraternity. Just in the last few days the university has suspended for a short time the activities of its fraternities and sororities. To quote the President, “In the intervening period we will assemble groups of students, faculty, alumni, and other concerned parties to address our next steps in preventing sexual assault and sexual violence on [our campus].”

This, as pointed out by the Washington Post, is “ … too little, far too late.” It is alarming to read that not a single student has ever been recommended for expulsion by the University of Virginia Sexual Misconduct Board, despite a number of accused students admitting their guilt over the years. This is in contrast to some 186 expulsions for honor code violations such as cheating. As stated in the Washington Post editorial, “…there are no real consequences. That perpetuates sexual violence … School officials need to recognize rape by students against other students for what it is: a serious crime. If the Rolling Stone article is accurate, the seven male students should not only be expelled. They belong in prison.”

I was particularly appalled at the just-released video of an interview with Dean Nicole Eramo, head of the University of Virginia’s Sexual Misconduct Board. She actually stated that even in cases where a student accused of rape admits guilt in an informal hearing setting, expulsion is not what the accuser is looking for; rather, the accuser is simply looking for the opportunity to look into the eyes of the person who violated them and say you have wronged me.  Indeed, the Dean said that the victims are generally quite satisfied just having  the person admit they’ve done something wrong. In further defense of the lack of expulsion penalties, this school official also had the audacity to opine that when an accused admits that they have violated what she calls “the policy” it shows a level of understanding of what they did which, and I quote, “is important to me.”

A “policy?”  The student is admitting guilt of a felony, not a “policy.”  “Important to me?” Frankly, Dean Eramo, the findings of the courts, not what you feel, is what is important to me!”

Where are the rights of the victim in this scenario? Where does the rule of law come into play? I agree that, as was done at the University of Virginia, a victim should have a range of options for action presented to them – from non-reporting to reporting to local police. What I do question is having an option for university hearings of such alleged felonies. In my opinion, a university is not the appropriate setting for the adjudication of accusations of sexual assault. When a student chooses to report such an alleged felony, I believe strongly that the police and judicial system should be involved to ensure a fair hearing for the accuser and the accused alike.

The, at best, naivety, at worst, arrogance exhibited by Dean Eramo plays out, unfortunately, on many of our nation’s campuses and can have dire consequences. In a recent study of some 1,800 college students by David Lisak and Paul Miller at the University at Massachusetts, Boston, it was reported that nine out of ten rapes were by serial rapists, averaging six rapes each. The kind of approach utilized by the University of Virginia and, sadly, too many other universities, allows students who are admitted rapists to remain on campus, or to return after far too short suspensions. The Lisak/Miller study documents that many of the rapes on campus are not simply isolated examples of youthful indiscretion fueled by alcohol, but rather the result of intentional felonies perpetrated by repeat offenders. Until we recognize this and treat the accused, of course, fairly, but within the rule of law, we will not, I fear, be addressing the real and dangerous issues confronting us. Our nation’s judicial system has, over the last several decades, dramatically increased the seriousness with which it deals with accusations of sexual assault and rape. It is time that our colleges and universities did the same.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

 

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