Campus Sexual Assault

2017.  It’s a brand new year, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t hauled the major problems of 2016 across the finish line and back to the start.

As we all know, the problem of sexual assault on college and university campuses has been featured in the news for several years now.  In the Gender Shrapnel Blog, I’ve written before about rape (Nov. 7, 2016), and administrative responses to the sexual harassment—sexual violence continuum (Oct. 31, 2016).  I’ve also discussed the Fox News sexual harassment issues as indications of profound problems of sexual entitlement and violence in our media and linked to the government officials who will take office in a few short weeks (Sept. 19, 2016).  Today I want to analyze The New York Times’s coverage of a rape case at Stanford University in an article published on December 29, 2016.

While you might be assuming that the article is about the Brock Turner case, it is not.  (Of course, the cases are linked through Stanford’s obvious predilection for protecting the athletes in these two cases, even in the face of copious evidence that indicates that these men committed felonies.)  The December 29th article covers the adjudication of the report of rape by a Stanford University sophomore, who has alleged that a member of the football team raped her after a fraternity party back in 2015.  Joe Drape and Marc Tracy, authors of the article, write, “A New York Times examination of the Stanford case concerning the football player, based in part on a review of more than 100 pages of documents from Stanford’s proceedings, illuminates the school’s struggles and pitfalls in adjudicating these kinds of cases.”  The authors have done due diligence and report carefully on Stanford’s various moves to decide the case and the challenges for all colleges and universities to hear these nuanced cases, make fair decisions, and then mete out (if necessary) just consequences.

I take issue with the coverage of this story not because the authors have treated it unfairly, but because editors have made inappropriate decisions about the placement of the story and its focus on college football, rather than on the alleged crime committed against a college sophomore and the faulty proceedings surrounding it.

The article, titled “A Majority Agreed She Was Raped by a Stanford Football Player.  That Wasn’t Enough,” appears in the “College Football” section of the day’s paper (online).  I was struck by the frivolous placement of such a serious news item.  While I believe that we must pay serious attention to sexual violence that takes place in “fraternal” contexts (e.g. fraternities, men’s athletics teams, the military), I don’t believe these stories should necessarily be appearing on the sports pages of major newspapers.  The decision to place the story in the “College Football” section means that the text is also accompanied by a bright, sun-filled photo of the team preparing to play a game back in September and another photo of Stanford University football helmets with the caption, “The Stanford team will face North Carolina in the Sun Bowl on Friday.”  Is the article not about the major missteps of Stanford University administrators in this case (and with mention of the Brock Turner case as well)?  If so, then why is the piece also advertising the football team’s participation in the Sun Bowl?  Jesus, people, can we not do better?  If you’re the unnamed victim, you read this piece knowing the takeaway is that readers mustn’t forget to tune into the prestigious bowl game.

Despite these questionable editorial decisions, the article does scrutinize Stanford’s adjudication processes.  The public outrage surrounding Stanford’s protection of Brock Turner and the subsequent light sentence from the Stanford-alum judge serve as an appropriate backdrop to this other story, in which the chairwoman of Stanford’s sexual assault advisory committee is quoted as having said, “and having three people decide something by a preponderance of the evidence seemed to us the appropriate way of deciding whether a life-altering sanction should be imposed on somebody for his or her behavior.”

Again, just as in the Brock Turner case, the desire to focus on the effects of sanctions on the life course and protected future of an individual found likely to have committed a felony reinforces the supposed “manifest destiny” of our protected male athletes.  It also fully ignores how the victim’s life has already been altered, not only by the violent crime itself, but also by the university’s desire to protect the accused and its own reputation.  To this point, Drape and Tracy write, “Still, very few sexual assault cases that have gone through the university’s internal process in recent years have led to any significant punishment for the accused, a fact that Stanford attributes to a rigorous but fair standard to guard against wrongful judgments. Advocates for sexual assault survivors consider it a sign of a system stacked against victims.”  The person found guilty by a majority of persons on two different university panels plays in the bowl game, while the person who was raped leaves the university in order to avoid contact with the perpetrator.  Having to live with this unjust institutional calculus and a necessary self-exile is what I would call “life-altering.”

Various Stanford University faculty members have made heroic efforts to have the administration understand the inherent injustice in their adjudication systems.  The article from The New York Times cites this open letter, written by five Stanford University professors in late 2015 to the provost.   Another troublesome element of the case is the report that the accused “had been ‘reassured’ by Stanford’s Title IX investigator that ‘situations like these more times than not result in nothing,’ and that a lawyer for the Associated Students of Stanford University had reviewed his response and advised some changes, ‘but mostly began to sympathize with me,’ and said that ‘what I was going through was unfair.’”  There are enough puzzle pieces here to indicate the overall picture from Stanford—protecting the accused means protecting the university, and so protect the accused they will do.

In fact, in a separate story about Stanford, this one titled “Ex-Stanford professor:  I was pushed out after reporting sexual harassment” (The Guardian, December 19, 2016), an individual from Stanford, Tammy Frisby, who testified about sexual harassment in her department, stated:  “’It’s a culture of intimidation where the university very clearly wants to send a message to women that you should not speak up or we will go after you,’ she said.  ‘When the university comes to do an HR investigation, they aren’t on your side.  The university is on the university’s side.’”

Just as in these Stanford cases, victims most often are not seeking monetary solutions.  They are seeking removal of a criminal from their immediate surroundings, that is, from the spaces in which they need to move in order to work, study, research, graduate.  Nevertheless, the university, the third, conveniently invisible party in all of these “he said-she said” cases, views the request for protection as a legal threat and then circles the wagons, thus protecting itself first and, by default, the perpetrator second.

We know that colleges and universities are lucrative businesses (insane endowments; NCAA television contracts; bookstore sales; etc.).  In order to understand the still-fraught Title IX machinations on our campuses, we need to understand the calculations that our administrations and general counsels are making.  I imagine a giant Excel spreadsheet telling them which outcome brings greater potential financial losses.   The spreadsheet seems magically to point to the advantage of eliminating the “thin-skinned plaintiff” and protecting the felon.  And, of course, this goes to our United States legal system, which is unable to function away from the almighty dollar.

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