Campus Injustices and Summer Homework
Living near three college campuses—and our town high school—I am always very aware at this time of year that graduation is upon us. The side streets are jammed with overflow parking, the sidewalks are full of proud families and cap and gown wearing students.
My own class of 1970 at the University of California was denied a real-time ceremony in the Greek Theater, the first and last time ever. The war in Southeast Asia, especially the Cambodia invasion, had caused too much tension on campus—or so argued the administration—to risk a public gathering. So many agitated young people might use the occasion to continue the spirited protests that had marked my entire undergraduate tenure. Instead, our diplomas were mailed. We waited 20 years before being invited back in 1990 for a mock ceremony, and were then urged to join and donate generously to the alumnae association.
Last week, the Columbia University Class Day ceremony was the scene of a 2015-style protest; this time due to the school’s handling of sexual assault. Senior Emma Sulkowicz crossed the stage carrying a mattress. She has been hauling it around campus until the fellow student she had accused of rape was no longer permitted there. Instead of being disciplined, her alleged attacker, Paul Nungesser, had been cleared of charges and has filed a federal discrimination law suit against the school, citing harassment in the aftermath of the investigation.
Seemingly, President Lee C. Bollinger failed to shake her hand, which he had done with the other graduates. As reported by the New York Times, keynote speaker Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angles acknowledged the slight, observing that student activists had taken risks and challenged hierarchy.
Campus rape has been big in the news this past year. The December 2014 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine carried a story about a freshman woman at the University of Virginia who said she had been brutally assaulted by seven men at a frat party. The article vividly described this particular case, as well as drawing attention to the campus rape problem nationwide. One in five women is sexually assaulted in college—most often during her freshman year– with only about 12 percent reporting it to police.
After the story was published, the adamant denial from UVA fraternities and others led to fact-checking. This revealed that, at the very least, contributor Sabrina Rubin Erdely had been sloppy in verifying allegations and, at most, had deliberately distorted the facts. The widely covered apology by the magazine was met with approval by those who felt that the school had been smeared, especially male students, and dismay by many who have been working on college safety reforms for females on campuses and feared the backlash.
However, a specific incident that has been seriously questioned on one campus does not negate the reality that women enrolled in colleges across the country face the possibility of what is also called “sexual intercourse without consent.” This is the most under-reported and under-prosecuted serious crime in the nation,” writer Jon Krakauer notes in his latest book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.
In it, he tells the particular stories of several young female students at the University of Montana who are met with varying degrees of justice—or not—when they do come forward. He talks about allegations of a “feminist cabal” of hysterical, vindictive, deceptive university women making false accusations, even in light of the fact that there is less than 10 percent instance of false allegations. He describes a milieu in which an overwhelming majority of rapists go free, with less than six percent prosecuted and, of those convicted, less than three percent serving any jail time. An atmosphere in which the victims are met with suspicion, perpetrators with sympathy, and repeat offenders enabled to do so with “utter impunity.” He declares, following a careful examination of data and courtroom coverage of at least one campus sexual assault case, that rape is the only crime in which the victim is presumed to be a liar.
In 2014, the Obama Administration released the “Not Alone” report on campus safety for women, toughening the requirements under Title 1X (a law outlawing sexual discrimination and violence in colleges receiving federal funds). Initially more than 50 were charged with violating federal laws around these complaints, including Harvard, UC Berkeley, Princeton, Boston University, and Michigan State. The number is now up to 90.
Summer reading for all of us, Missoula is a strong indictment of one college in particular and American campuses in general in their responses to campus rape and other forms of sexual battery.
Summer homework for institutions of higher education: Serious work on reworking or developing new plans which ensure safety for women.