ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

An Explosive Report on Rape: Part V

What to do now?

December 3, 2014 by Alex McHugh

As we come to the end of our series on Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s Rolling Stone piece, two lessons emerge with particular clarity. The first is that the party culture on American campuses is doing grave harm and that it is long past time to see some adult leadership stop the intellectual, emotional, and physical damage it is causing. The second is that due process is the only way to address the crisis at UVA and elsewhere—thoughtless reaction and, indeed, journalistic excess will not help. Due process ought to be the watchword of justice and the bulwark of our free society. 

This applies even to the Rolling Stone article itself. Over the past few days, some of the claims and charges made in the article and what many are now identifying as questionable journalistic practices have appropriately come under under scrutiny. KC Johnson, famously skeptical of the allegations against the Duke lacrosse team, has thoughtfully analyzed and, in some measure, challenged the case that Erdeley builds. This is as it should be when grave crimes are at issue. 

Professor Johnson ends with this: “…none of this is to suggest that Jackie isn’t telling the truth. But it is to suggest that Erdely and Rolling Stone had an agenda other than presenting the truth to their readers.” The presence of such an agenda is worrisome, both for its distortion of fact, and because exaggeration of the threat posed by campus sexual assault is partially responsible for the push for on-campus adjudication that Erdeley herself deplores.

The previous posts in this series have sought to make it apparent that these on-campus procedures have largely failed to make students any safer. As Robby Soave noted on Monday:

I didn't question the incident itself, because my point stands regardless. Making universities investigate and adjudicate rape—something that both federal and state governments are pushing—is the wrong approach, and what happened at UVA is just one example of why that's the case.

This leads us to a second cause for concern: UVA is now in a reactive, rather than a thoughtful, proactive posture.

Rather than banning all fraternity activity—one of the few steps UVA has taken so far—the university should admit it is plainly unequipped to hold sex offenders accountable, and begin to foster the kind of productive relationship with law enforcement that could truly put an end to the excesses and dangers of the regnant party culture on campus. 

Punishing all Greek organizations is symbolic, not substantive, action. Like campus sexual assault proceedings, it’s not about catching rapists; it’s about signaling concern for the issue. The criminal justice system, with tools and experience college bureaucrats lack, is far more equipped to handle cases of assault seriously than a panel of professors and administrators who have been told repeatedly that every ambiguous situation is rape or harassment.

If UVA is serious about changing campus culture, it should renew its commitment being to what Thomas Jefferson envisioned—a place of serious and rigorous academic work. One place to start is in the seemingly inconsequential world of course scheduling. If there are more classes scheduled on Friday, straight through to the afternoon, and then again on Monday mornings, students will be better prepared for the working world and the school will avoid at least some of the collateral damage of alcohol-fueled three-day weekends. 

A ban on fraternity activity is unlikely to stop the partying. If UVA students are as “party hearty” as the Rolling Stone piece describes, they won’t let this stop them. Rather, they’ll retreat further out of sight of administrators and other adults, to the even darker corners of campus. Much in the same way the end of university-sanctioned and university-controlled partying pushed social life into the fraternities, the end of fraternity-controlled parties will give way to other providers of alcohol and entertainment.

What’s ultimately needed is a change in university priorities and a renewed commitment by alumni, administrators, and trustees to bring about change. Universities need to reassert their role of acting in loco parentis; they need to prioritize academics over promoting the college social scene; and they need to begin treating cases of assault and rape as what they really are: crimes.


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