By JENNIFER STEINHAUER and RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA
NOV. 26, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Shocked, tearful and at times defensive, members of the board that oversees the University of Virginia insisted that they would combat the problem of sexual assault on campus after a magazine article reported a gang rape at a campus fraternity and allegations that the university was more concerned about its reputation than a history of sexual assault embedded in its hard-drinking social life.
The unusual emergency meeting, which included students, a representative of the fraternity system and the Charlottesville police chief, did not end with specific policy prescriptions for the university. A legal firm was assigned to the university to help come up with new guidelines at a time when Congress and the Obama administration have put intensifying pressure on schools that fail to report and punish assaults.
But the mere existence of the meeting of the Board of Visitors — held as most students began to scatter for the Thanksgiving holiday — appeared to signal a crossroads for the university, one of the nation’s most prestigious and historic. Virginia suddenly finds itself with the potential to become either the national symbol of the problems of sexual assaults on campus or a leader in substantive policy changes to address the problems. The board said it would come up with recommendations in a few weeks.
“This type of conduct will not be tolerated at the University of Virginia,” said the rector, George Keith Martin. “The status quo will no longer be acceptable. I am appalled, simply appalled.”
The article in Rolling Stone magazine last week, which detailed a student’s account of being gang raped at the University of Virginia in 2012, prompted Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the university, to contact the Charlottesville Police Department to request a criminal investigation. “There were bystanders,” said the police chief, Timothy J. Longo Sr., who is also in charge of an investigation of the death of a university sophomore, Hannah Graham, who disappeared in September. “I hope that those bystanders have the moral courage to come forward and help us with that investigation.”
Sexual assault on campuses “points to an entrenched cultural problem in student life,” said Dr. Sullivan, who said news of the sexual assault had left her numb. “Now is the time, and this is the generation of students when it must stop,” she added. Protesters lined the room and were also outside the campus building where the meeting was held.
Dr. Sullivan suspended all activities for campus fraternities and sororities through the rest of the year, although members of the board suggested Tuesday that the ban could continue until new policies were established to prevent sexual assault and other crimes.
Much of the meeting focused on the use of alcohol by students, and little on the role of the administration, which has come under fire for what critics say are overly soft punishments for felony sexual crimes. “Part of the reason we got here is because we swept things under the rug,” said Helen E. Dragas, a board member, who began crying as she spoke. She made a motion for a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual assault.
Experts in campus safety say that colleges and universities could cut down on binge drinking, and put a dent sexual assault and hazing, by expelling students and shutting down organizations for the most serious alcohol-related offenses. But moves like that would invite a backlash from parents and alumni, and administrators are unwilling to take the risk.
On Tuesday, Virginia’s chief deputy attorney general, Cynthia Hudson, sent a letter to Mr. Martin to inform him than an independent law firm would serve as counsel to the board to manage the issues of sexual violence.
One board member, Stephen P. Long, warned that fraternities were being unfairly maligned and seemed disturbed by the news media attention on the school, where television cameras have landed for not the first time. “What this board is doing and will continue to do is look at facts,” Mr. Long said. “What we cannot do is act precipitously. We cannot respond solely to emotion. Concerning fraternities, he said, “we must not throw any organization under the bus.”
Thomas Reid, president of the Inter-Fraternity Council, carefully defended Greek life, now under assault, even as he denounced what was reported to be the rape at the Phi Kappa Psi house now under investigation. “Our university is in the wilderness right now,” he said.
The Phi Kappa Psi chapter here dates to the 1850s, making it the second-oldest of the fraternity’s more than 100 chapters nationwide, and one of the oldest at the university. In the social pecking order on the Grounds, as people here refer to the campus, it occupies a prominent spot, known for having more than its share of wealthy, well-connected members, and it has a similar reputation at many other schools.
Several of its chapters have also run into recent trouble. Just days before the Rolling Stone article, Brown University suspended its Phi Kappa Psi chapter, after two women said they had been drugged at a fraternity party and one said she had been sexually assaulted; one woman tested positive for a date-rape drug, and test results on the other are still pending, the university said.
Since 2011, a history of hazing and alcohol abuse has led to the closing of Phi Kappa Psi chapters at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Arizona, and the suspension of chapters at the University of Dayton, Cornell and West Virginia University. The national organization declined to answer questions about its record.
Another source of embarrassment for the university has been the fight song “From Rugby Road to Vinegar Hill,” with lyrics that celebrate drunken excess, sex and, by some accounts, sexual assault. The song dates back generations — though new verses have been added over the years — to a time when the university was all male and unabashedly a bastion of privilege.
The Charlottesville campus began to admit women in significant numbers in 1970, but it took much longer for serious objections to the song to take hold. The marching band stopped playing it in 2010, but the Glee Club did not retire the song until after it was extensively quoted in the Rolling Stone article last week.