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Explosive Allegations of Sexual Assault at UVA: But are They True?

UVA President Teresa Sullivan with Secretary of State John Kerry

(Charlottesville, Virginia) – The University of Virginia was stunned last week with the publication of an article in the online edition of Rolling Stone Magazine that described a brutal gang rape at one the school’s all-male fraternities in September 2012. The university’s president, Teresa A. Sullivan, responded by suspending all fraternity activities for the remainder of the year. Along with the governor of the state, she has promised a full investigation.

The online comment section for the article now has nearly 7000 comments, virtually all of which accept without question the veracity of the story. But the rush to judgment may be premature. The narrative lacks corroboration and describes a series of events that on the surface would seem unlikely. If no one else will raise questions about whether these events actually took place, then I will. Only a thorough and fair investigation can accurately determine if the allegations are true.

As detailed in the article, a first year student named Jackie (no real names are used) is taken to the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity while on a first date with a junior named Drew. But it wasn’t a date; it was a well planned ambush involving a half dozen other young men who forcefully subdued her as soon as she entered an upstairs room. She talks of having her arms pinned down and being punched after biting the hand of one of her attackers. Over a three hour period she was violated by seven young men, all of whom remained to watch after their own participation. Her date Drew gave “instruction and encouragement” throughout the ordeal. In a conversation after the events she quotes another student as saying that “they’ll never let us into a frat party again” if she were to properly report the incident.

The events described are heinous, but did they actually happen? Wouldn’t the men have been worried about getting caught? How common is it for young men to want to watch something like this or to restrain a victim while others act? In my experience it’s rare for a young man to want to have sex in the presence of another male. Wouldn’t there be other members in the frat with enough character to oppose such actions? Most of the young men there have bright futures in front of them. Why would they risk participation in an incident with a good 50/50 chance of landing them in prison for decades?

At this point public statements by both the university and the fraternity have made clear that this is the first they have heard of many important details contained in the article. A statement by the fraternity says that, “no detailed information regarding this story or investigation had been shared with us beyond the scope of the article once released.” In a statement from President Sullivan’s office she reiterates that the article includes “many details that were not previously disclosed to University officials.”

Over the last few years a growing movement to address sexual assault on US college campuses, very much supported by the Obama Administration, has emerged. The efforts have been front and center at elite institutions such as Dartmouth, Harvard, and Yale. But not all the experts can be trusted. Some have political agendas and the potential for the unfair treatment of an innocent young man, as in the Duke Lacrosse Case, must be taken seriously.

The events at Yale have been particularly curious. The school’s star quarterback in 2012, Patrick Witt, is now a student at the Harvard Law School. Earlier this month he wrote an important editorial in the Boston Globe where he challenged sexual assault allegations he had faced during his senior year. He points out that he had had no opportunity to challenge or even view the allegations against him. The proceedings were supposed to be confidential but word leaked out to one of his potential employers and to the committee charged with evaluating his application for a prestigious Rhodes scholarship. His commentary coincided with an open letter from 25 members of the Harvard Law School faculty that called into question new sexual assault policies which they believed could be unfair to the accused.

According to experts, college sexual assaults usually involve one-on-one, male-on-female, date rape where clear denial of consent can be questioned. There can also be problems with manipulative relationships and closeness in age statues. Everyone agrees that most incidents go unreported. All major universities have procedures in place for aiding students who report an assault. In all cases the victim is given the choice not to involve law enforcement if she so chooses. In most cases they don’t.

I have significant familiarity with the fraternity system at Dartmouth where the issue is also front and center. I was a member of one of the major fraternities there in the late 70s and return there reasonably often. I know well the alumni advisors who are active today and they very definitely have a plan in place to promote character in the young people. I do not believe for a second that six young men there would conspire to do something like this. Not now; not in the 70s.

The feminists who are at the center of the movement have a controversial history. In 1993, they convinced NBC to air a Superbowl Sunday public service announcement with the theme that domestic violence spiked on the day of the game. The claim was later exposed as a hoax. Years later controversial feminist Andrea Dworkin made a claim of rape that even fellow feminists questioned. In 42 years of co-education at Dartmouth there have been two indictments and no convictions for rape. It is not at all clear that that number can be reconciled with the estimate, frequently cited by experts, of several thousand rapes over the same period of time.

In recent years the University of Virginia has been rocked by a number of other tragic events. In 2010, UVA student Yeardley Love was murdered by a member of the lacrosse team who she had dated briefly. Both UVA student Hannah Graham and Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington (last seen on the UVA campus) were almost certainly the victims of a serial killer who has been linked to other killings in the area. Jesse Matthew, a suspect in the investigation and now in custody, had actually been expelled from two other Virginia institutions based on sexual assault allegations. In both cases the incidents were properly investigated by the schools but not passed on to law enforcement at the request of the victims.

UVA’s president, Teresa Sullivan, has not been off to a good start in handling the crisis. Only hours after her appointment of former prosecutor, Mark Philip, to head the investigation in the case, he was forced to resign because he had been a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity as an undergraduate at another school. Only two years earlier, by coincidence around the time of the alleged assault, Sullivan had barely survived an attempt by other administrator to remove her from office.

While it is possible that the UVA rape allegations are not true, it’s also possible they are. Jackie does provide important details that would greatly aid in an investigation. She speaks of recognizing one of her attackers from an anthropology discussion group. Surely it would not be hard to make a complete list of fraternity brothers who were on campus that term. In addition the lack of a speedy and unequivocal denial by the fraternity is troubling.

Everyone agrees that every student must feel safer on every American college campus. But fairness to those accused of crimes is important also. The best course here is to withhold judgment until the results of the investigation are made public.