U-Va. Reaction to Rape Claim: Worse Than at Duke?

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Depressing similarities link the two highest-profile allegations of campus sexual assault in recent years -- the fraudulent gang rape claims against Duke lacrosse players in 2006, and Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Erdely’s multiply discredited portrayal in November of a sadistically brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity.

Even more depressing is another comparison between the two cases. While campus journalists and many other students at Duke were refreshingly open to evidence and critical thinking as the case there unfolded, the vast majority of U-Va. students have been sheep-like. They have emulated -- or at least tolerated -- the anti-male prejudices of U-Va. academics and administrators. Some have even called for secret criminal trials in rape prosecutions.

As to lacrosse case similarities, the most obvious was the initial mob-like rush to judgment at U-Va. by left-leaning faculty, administrators, and news media in embracing the now-infamous claim by “Jackie” of being gang-raped on a bed of shattered glass. By presuming the guilt of college men accused of implausibly barbaric crimes against women and minorities, these academics were oblivious to the lessons from Duke.

Not unlike the 88 Duke professors who signed a public statement in 2006, which included a thank-you to protesters who had urged the team captains’ castration, those U-Va. professors who individually spoke up immediately after the Rolling Stone article were eager to see it as exemplifying a campus “rape culture” of which there is little hard evidence.

Then there is the lamentable performance of school President Teresa Sullivan, who has rivaled the shameful indifference to due process shown by Richard Brodhead, who is, alas, still Duke’s president. Sullivan’s sins include using the Rolling Stone article as an excuse to accuse seven unnamed fraternity members of “evil acts” and to suspend all U-Va. fraternities both before and after the accuser’s story unraveled.

And while The Washington Post’s excellent work exposing Rolling Stone’s errors of omission and commission was a welcome change from the newspaper's own shoddy journalism in the lacrosse case, the New York Times continued its pattern of presuming the guilt of accused males. Its Duke coverage was exposed long ago as so appallingly biased as to prompt apologies from multiple editors. True to form, the Times disgraced itself yet again in early December by running an article aggressively defending Erdely’s piece just as it was collapsing.

The one encouraging on-campus aspect of the Duke case was the reaction of many students, including the award-winning news and editorial team at the student newspaper, The Chronicle.

During the many months when Brodhead and his professors were treating lacrosse players as presumptively guilty pariahs, student journalists dispassionately analyzed events and repeatedly scooped the national and local news media. Chronicle commentators, most notably Kristin Butler, eviscerated the cowardice of campus elders. Students also recognized Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong’s lies far sooner than did their teachers, and worked to change the system by registering voters to oppose Nifong at the ballot box.

The responses of the vast majority of U-Va. students to the Rolling Stone fiasco were far less inspiring. It was, of course, predictable that self-styled victims’ rights activists would embrace Rolling Stone’s version of events. Less predictable, and more striking, was the uncritical acceptance of Jackie’s wild tale by the student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily. Until late December, its coverage mirrored Rolling Stone’s, even as various off-campus publications shredded Jackie’s varying accounts.

Instead, the newspaper’s executive editor, Katherine Ripley, was busy sending tweets with the hashtag #IStandWithJackie about how the Jackie story “resonated with me.” (Ms. Ripley hasn’t revealed which of Jackie’s mutually contradictory stories she believes; her most recent tweets have utilized the #IStandWithSurvivors hashtag.) Assistant Managing Editor Julia Horowitz proclaimed that “to let fact checking define the narrative would be a huge mistake.”

Even U-Va. fraternity members, President Sullivan’s most immediate targets, meekly accepted their ill-considered suspension without critical scrutiny either of Jackie’s now-discredited claims or of their own alleged complicity in a supposed “rape culture.” While a national organization of fraternities demanded that Sullivan apologize, the fraternities at U-Va. made no such demand.

Indeed, the school’s fraternity council recently joined with the student council and various victims’ rights groups to recommend that the state of Virginia change its laws to hold secret trials, with the public excluded, in all criminal prosecutions for rape -- a stunning call for star-chamber-style railroading of accused males.

The student coalition also expressed hope that the university would provide accusers access to legal counsel (their recommendations contained no reference to accused students’ need for lawyers), while ordering all future U-Va. students to take a course in “Women and Gender Studies.” At Duke eight years ago, by contrast, a similar curricular proposal won support only from the most extreme anti-lacrosse faculty members, and even the Brodhead administration elected not to embrace it.

What explains this difference between students at Duke in 2006 and U-Va. now? We cannot be sure. But we do know that the past eight years have witnessed a profound effort to devalue due process for students accused of sexual assault, regardless of the merits of the accusation. This trend, which was ably analyzed by Peter Berkowitz, has been accelerated by Obama administration demands that campuses significantly weaken their already weak procedural protections for accused students or face crippling cutoffs of federal funds. The inevitable result will be more convictions -- whether the accused was guilty or not.

Today’s students have been bombarded with the president’s assertions that “one in five women on college campuses has been sexually assaulted during their time there” and similar claims by other officials, journalists, and academics. As Slate’s Emily Yoffe has observed, this absurd figure (which since has been discredited by the Bureau of Justice Statistics) implies that the typical college campus has the same rate of rape as war-torn areas of the Congo.

Yet powerful media voices, ranging from the New York Times to Huffington Post to BuzzFeed, have touted the claim while aggressively promoting the dubious “rape culture” narrative. They’ve done so through dozens of articles portraying sexual assault accusers who failed to prevail in campus disciplinary cases as victims of gender discrimination.

And the nation’s most prestigious universities, including U-Va. and Duke, have pushed such ideologies of resentment -- in their reeducation-camp-style “orientation” sessions for new students, in the extremist race/class/gender teachings that dominate many humanities courses, and in the kangaroo-court disciplinary systems that have censored expression of “offensive” political views as well as railroading dozens of students on rape charges that appear to be based on flimsy evidence.

In such an environment, it might be understandable that few students would risk being branded as “rape apologists” by defending due process. In this respect, the U-Va. student response may evidence a troubling trend over the last eight years. In any event, it surely illustrates a poisoned campus culture that has implications far beyond Charlottesville.

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Stuart Taylor Jr. is a Washington writer and Brookings Institution nonresident senior fellow. They co-authored the 2007 book “Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case.”

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