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A University With a Culture Problem

by on November 24, 2014 6:15 AM

A university under the cloud of a scandal with allegations of inaction by administration, cover-ups, concerns about the university's image, and, of lives ruined by sexual assault.

This time, it is the University of Virginia.

Rolling Stone magazine recently released an expose on what is alleged to be a culture and long standing history of denial and misrepresentation of crimes committed against women at Virginia's prestigious and storied state university.

With graphic details of an alleged gang rape at a UVA fraternity, the article paints UVA as a having a culture of tolerance and acceptance of sexual assault. In response, the UVA community is up in arms.

Some are upset that the article tarnishes the university's reputation without police reports or criminal charges to support the allegations. Others are outraged at what they see as an institutional lack of response to rape as part of the UVA experience for the young woman in question and for too many others like her.

The university is now promising action and a full investigation.

A group of students has written an anonymous letter to the student newspaper claiming responsibility for recent vandalism at the fraternity in question with threats of continued aggressive protest against the inaction and tolerance at UVA unless changes are made, including a demand for the resignation of key university administrators. The internet is blowing up with comments in support of the university but also with demands for action, including those from women who are just now stepping forward to say "it happened to me too."

Sadly, UVA is not alone in facing the issue of sexual assault. From the Ivy League to community colleges, sexual assault has become epidemic on college campuses. According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately 1 in 5 women will face either an attempted or successful sexual assault during her college experience.

It is commonly believed the numbers are an under-representation of the problem because of the both the stigma of reporting a sexual assault as well as a lack of understanding of the definition of sexual assault. A surprising number of college aged women answer "yes" when asked if they were ever coerced or threatened into unwanted sexual contact and also answer "no" when asked if they have been sexually assaulted. A shocking number of college aged men admit to behaviors that fall under the definition of sexual assault if not rape.

College campuses are fertile grounds for sexual assault. Close living quarters. Young men and women experiencing new found independence while living outside of the scope of parental supervision. Decisions and judgments made by the immature young adult brain. Hormones. Peer pressure and a desire to fit in.

Alcohol.

Most of the incidents of sexual assault on campus involve an acquaintance and drinks tainted with drugs or alcohol consumption -- to the point that judgment is compromised on the side of both the victim and the predator.

Relying heavily on internal investigations, student conduct committees and an attempt to protect the accused from false accusations and the school from bad public relations (and lawsuits), universities have historically stumbled in their response to sexual assaults on campus. The very nature of a crime that involves shame, power over another human being, and degradation makes it uncomfortable to talk about let alone investigate and hold someone accountable. As we have seen at UVA, Columbia, Notre Dame and others, young women are often dissuaded from making reports while the accused remains free to walk around campus or worse – the offender and his friends continue to harass the victim without consequence.

It is becoming increasingly clear that universities must pass the investigations of sexual assault to law enforcement to manage this problem.

The Rolling Stone article stuck with me. I picture the young women – and the young men – in my classes at Penn State, their futures so easily derailed by trusting the wrong person. Students by day and offenders by night, bereft of conscience or empathy, others drawn in too easily by their peers.

The article- and the young woman who bravely stepped forward to tell her story - will likely serve as a catalyst for change in Charlottesville but hopefully on other campuses as well. Our goal has to be prevention through education of both women and men of the risks and the consequences of criminal behaviors. Finally, we need to create a system that makes it safe for victims and/or witnesses to step forward and we need to hold the offenders accountable.

If we have learned anything with the Sandusky scandal at Penn State, we have learned that those with expertise in coaching or teaching or research or in university administration are often not equipped to handle the intricacies of a criminal investigation. We have learned that facing an issue head on, regardless of the potential for negative publicity, and letting the proper authorities handle it, will protect both the individuals and the university.

We have learned that an institution must periodically hold up the mirror to assess how decisions are being made at that institution. What can other universities learn from the lessons at UVA?

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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