UVA officials and students respond to ‘rape culture’ allegations

A recent (and now viral) article by The Rolling Stone highlighting a purported gang rape allegedly carried out by a University of Virginia fraternity has put a spotlight on the way school officials have handled sexual assault allegations.

In the wake of the damning story, UVA students and officials have spoken out. The university has even suspended fraternities until Jan. 9, but critics point out that so far, no one has offered a lasting solution.

University President Teresa A. Sullivan issued a statement Saturday that read, in part:

The wrongs described in “Rolling Stone” are appalling and have caused all of us to reexamine our responsibility to this community. Rape is an abhorrent crime that has no place in the world, let alone on the campuses and grounds of our nation’s colleges and universities. We know, and have felt very powerfully this week, that we are better than we have been described, and that we have a responsibility to live our tradition of honor every day, and as importantly every night.

Sullivan wrote that she asked police to investigate the assault described in the magazine, calling for anyone with knowledge of the situation to come forward. She then wrote:

I write you today in solidarity. I write you in great sorrow, great rage, but most importantly, with great determination. Meaningful change is necessary, and we can lead that change for all universities. We can demand that incidents like those described in “Rolling Stone” never happen and that if they do, the responsible are held accountable to the law. This will require institutional change, cultural change, and legislative change, and it will not be easy. We are making those changes.

Gil Rudawsky, VP of Ground Floor Media, says Sullivan’s message is not only “too little, too late,” but also comes across as defensive and doesn’t offer an enduring solution.

“The statement does little to sway those outside the university that there is a definitive plan in place to address the issues at hand,” Rudawsky says. “There are only general statements, not a game plan for fixing the issues.”

Tripp Frohlichstein, president of the crisis training firm MediaMasters, agrees.

“Neither letter offers any new actions—other than a token fraternity suspension mostly over the holidays—but rehashes old territory,” he says. “The university should have offered more concrete action, even if it is just forming a commission to come up with actionable ideas with a very short time limit.”

Frohlichstein says the real problem lies within the leadership itself: “Top people have not dealt with the problem and are being forced into action by a story of an event more than two years old.”

Student statements aren’t much better in terms of offering solutions. UVA student leaders pledged to end sexual assault on campus Monday morning, but Jalen Ross, president of UVA’s student council, said they don’t have a remedy:

Many this week have called for a solution, for an end, an answer to sexual assault. We don’t have that answer. But if we have any chance at finding it, at building one, building a solution, it’ll have to be together.

This school’s crisis goes much further than just a bad week in the press, however. UVA is one of 88 colleges and universities being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for the way they have handled sexual assault cases.

Though Sullivan’s statement seems to include a university censure on sexual assault, The Huffington Post points to an interview with Nicole Eramo, associate dean of students, which includes the following assertion:

In the context of an informal resolution meeting, there’s really no advantage to admitting guilt. There’s no need to admit guilt. They’re not actually in a hearing proceeding, and I feel like if a person is willing to come forward in that setting and admit that they violated the policy when there’s absolutely no advantage to do so, that that does deserve some consideration. That they’re willing to say, “I’ve done something wrong and I recognize that and I’m willing to take my licks and deal with it,” that’s very important to me. I think that shows a level of understanding of what they did that I don’t see in a hearing necessarily.

The crisis extends beyond university walls, in that it coincides with other recent sexual assault allegations in the news.

Brian Hart, founder and president of Flackable, says many individuals and organizations “face an uphill battle to salvage their reputations” after allegations of sexual impropriety, including those against Penn State University and Bill Cosby. But Hart says it’s much more than just a reputation issue.

“This is not a PR crisis. This is a culture crisis,” he says. “The UVA PR team should be focused on changing the thinking of the perpetrators rather than the public.”

Lyrics from a traditional UVA fight song, “Rugby Road,” are sprinkled throughout the “Rolling Stone” article; the most problematic verse goes like this:

All you girls from Mary Washington and R.M.W.C.,

Never let a Cavalier an inch above your knee;

He’ll take you to his fraternity house and fill you full of beer,

And soon you’ll be the mother of a bastard Cavalier!”

If the words to the song aren’t troubling enough, a petition that fought against the 2010 ban on the song at football games certainly should be. The university’s oldest male a cappella group still sings it. (The glee club has temporarily retired it.)

Change must start somewhere, Frohlichstein says. The key to getting ahead of crisis situations such as these is to take responsibility and “report your own bad news.”

He offers the following advice to communicators:

There is the mistaken feeling at universities, corporations, and nonprofits that if something wrong happens, you should cover it up and hope it goes away. But this is a gamble not worth taking. By reporting your own bad news, you will appear, instead, as an organization with an admitted problem but, more importantly, an organization that wants to fix the problem.

Beki Winchel is co-editor of PR Daily. 

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