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University of Virginia UVA Arts & Sciences Default

President Teresa Sullivan's Address to Students

Dec 01, 2014 |

The publication of the Rolling Stone article, and the passionate reaction of our students, faculty, staff, parents, alumni, and community members, have caused many sleepless nights for those of us who care about UVA.  The passionate reaction tells me this:  the behavior depicted is not something we will accept as normal, and the actions described by seven men in the story have betrayed us.  We have a problem, and we are going to get after it. 

The story has raised a number of questions in my mind, and I will make it my highest priority in the coming months to learn the answers.  My team will spare no effort between now and the opening of the Spring semester to address these questions.  And let me say emphatically that how we answer these questions is not about protecting the University’s reputation – it is about doing the right thing, and the reputation I care about the most is not being afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead.  We will not be doing business as usual in Spring 2015.  We will fearlessly examine ourselves and our culture, while we will also cooperate fully with the independent investigation underway.

First, do we do everything possible to protect every student at UVA?  Let  me say this: I have been so greatly heartened by the passionate, overwhelming response by this community to condemn the evil acts that have been reported.  UVA students and alumni are speaking up, loudly, and saying this will never be tolerated on our Grounds.  Yet, at the same time, it has also been tough to hear from alumni, many from decades ago, who have shared their negative experiences, and then sadly wondered if nothing has changed.    If there is a subculture that hurts any UVA students or exploits any of our fellow Wahoos, then we must find out where it hides and root it out.  Examining this question will be my major priority over the next few months.  UVA is too good a place to allow this evil to reside.  We must make this school a safe and welcoming place for all.

Second, have we provided the proper emphasis on  both supporting survivors and encouraging reporting?  We have tried to be responsive to advocacy groups who emphasize that a traumatized survivor has already had her autonomy taken from her.  In the victim-centered approach, the emphasis is on giving choices to the survivors and letting them understand and choose their course of action.  And empirically, we find that many survivors do not want to take action, or they want an outcome other than expulsion, or they want to think through their options before making a decision.  The very experience of the trauma can interfere with decision-making.  On the other side, as Chief Timothy Longo has emphasized to our Board of Visitors, timely reporting is critical to law enforcement.   Forensic evidence disappears.  Witnesses forget or move away.     If we have chosen the wrong balance, this is time to change the balance.  If our enforcement mechanism is broken, we will fix it.  We will also better engage with law enforcement, and this weekend Chief Longo and I had a conversation about proceeding with that. 

One thing we know for sure is that survivors need support, and we need to provide it to them.   But we also a need a culture in which reporting is valued and supported by everyone who has contact with a survivor.   Every faculty member and every staff member is going to learn how to do this.  One faculty member, Joe Allen from the Psychology Department, has drafted a “Victim’s bill of rights” that summarizes in clear, comprehensible language what choices are available.  I’m very attracted to the idea of making the information easily available to all. 

Third, what is the role of alcohol?   Alcohol does not cause rape, but alcohol is often a tool of the predator.  We know that many students consume alcohol.   From our alcohol education program, we know that about half of our entering class already drinks when they arrive in Charlottesville.   There is an unacknowledged problem with alcohol in high school. 

Binge drinking is a problem for us.  About one-sixth of our students abuse alcohol, in the sense that they are binge drinking at least occasionally.  Bingeing is a serious problem for their health.  The student body generally understands now that passing out from drink is a medical emergency.   In the interest of student safety, we have chosen to err on the side of medical treatment rather than punishment because we do not want to discourage students from seeking help for themselves or a friend.   And although there is a welcome long-term decline in binge drinking among students,  there is still too much. 

I said that alcohol is often a tool of the predator.   Women and men should know what they are drinking and who is serving it to them.   Young women should also understand that their lesser body weight and not eating with their drinks raise the probability that a smaller amount of alcohol will have a bigger effect on them.   The predators certainly know this.   Serving sweet-tasting but high-proof punches to women, while the guys sip a few beers, is often described as the prelude for taking advantage of the women.  Even an alert and careful student who tries the sweet-tasting cocktail containing many types of liquor cannot know how much alcohol it contains. 

Yet another problem with alcohol is that it can be the vehicle for some other drug to be ingested, unknown to the drinker.  Let’s call this by its name:  this is poisoning.  And it should be legally prosecuted as such.  We have all heard about the date-rape drugs, but they are very hard to detect because their metabolites in the body are so short-lived.  A targeted victim may be seemingly conscious but in fact unaware of her surroundings – and later, she has no idea what happened to her.  It’s alleged that this happens in Charlottesville; as I said, the evidence is hard to find, but a determined effort to find the sellers would be welcome.  If the predators can find the sellers of these drugs, law enforcement should also be able to find them.

We need to take further steps to educate about alcohol and to encourage enforcement.  I will look to the Gordie Center, to ADAPT, and to similar groups on the Grounds to offer me their best advice.  I want Friday and Saturday nights in the Spring to look different from the way they have looked this fall.

The fourth question is,  What is the role of Greek life?  Let me be clear about this:  in any crisis it can be far too easy to paint with a broad brush, and blindly attack entire groups of individuals.  This is not a responsible reaction.  It is not fair to fraternity men here who are good and decent people and are just as horrified as we all are about these disgusting allegations and revelations.  In fact man of the leaders of our campus anti-rape group One In Four are also members of fraternities.  Moreover, rapes and other sexual assaults occur in apartments, in public venues, and more rarely, in residence halls.  Nevertheless, there is great concern that a sexual predator can hide out in a fraternity, and therefore that fraternal social activities pose literal dangers to their guests. 

 I have suspended all social activities at fraternities until next semester, and two fraternal organizations that do not have recognition agreements with the University have notified me that they voluntarily suspended their social activities as well.  The University does not own the fraternity houses, and therefore it does not directly control them. What we have is a Fraternal Organization Agreement. When we say we have “kicked a fraternity out,” it means that we have suspended the fraternal agreement.   I am working with the leaders of Greek life to craft new contracts that provide greater safety for all of their guests during their activities.

Our fraternal agreements currently include requirements for training and other behavioral guidelines, but they don’t go far enough, and the fraternities now agree.  Last week they presented me with a dozen ideas for reform, which I like; and I have some additional ideas for them.   Last night I met with the President of the Interfraternity Council so that we could share our concerns.   I have asked for a proposal for the terms of new contract no later than December 31.  Underage drinking will be an important part of that discussion.  I meet tomorrow with the president of the Intersorority Council  to initiate a related discussion, and I will also meet with the multicultural Greek societies.  

I am calling on all of our contracted student organizations to devote some of the spring semester to reconsidering  their agreement  with the University and the ways in which they support a culture that values friendship over exploitation and service over social status. 

Both students and faculty have raised with me the issue that there is too much emphasis on the fraternity houses as the locus for social life.   Other opportunities for students are limited, especially on Saturdays.   These are also issues we must consider.

And the final issue is, what do we do about this?  This is a time for us to draw upon the wisdom and research of our faculty members, the creativity and imaginations of our students, and the passion and concern of our alumni to find real solutions.  A number of faculty groups will be meeting this week and next; I intend to join the Darden faculty today and the Arts & Sciences faculty at their meeting tomorrow afternoon.  My holiday reception on Thursday before Lighting of the Lawn has been repurposed to a discussion of sexual assault. 

This week I am authorizing the funding and hiring of an additional trauma counselor for the Women’s Center.   This action has been specifically requested by the Women’s Center and by One Less, a student organization that seeks to prevent sexual assault. 

We have extended the period of comment on our new sexual conduct policy.  We started working on this policy long before the Rolling Stone article, and some of its provisions are mandated by federal guidelines.  Our previous policy was developed in 2011, in response to guidance from the federal   government, and as we did in 2011 we are asking for public comment on this policy. 

In January, we have already planned intensive additional bystander training for both faculty and students from nationally-recognized Green Dot.   Many sexual assaults could be prevented by active bystander intervention, and this training emphasizes how, not whether, to intervene.  Bystander training reinforces what I believe is the majority view that values every student and his or her safety.   In January we will be rolling out online training for faculty, staff, and students.  This training was developed at UVA and is specific to UVA, not purchased off the shelf. 

Later in the spring, we will be conducting a climate survey for all students.  The purpose of this anonymous survey is to provide us with information on two things:  are students aware of our policies, and what negative experiences have students had with respect to any sort of sexual misconduct, from verbal aggression to actual assaults.  We know that sexual offenses are among the most underreported offenses everywhere in the country; we hope that through this anonymous survey we can gain access to more accurate baseline information about how commonly students experience these things.  As we repeat this survey in coming years, we hope to find that we have moved the needle toward eliminating sexual violence, assault, and lesser forms of misconduct. 

Through the spring we will be providing additional opportunities for input and discussion, looking at everything from the questions we ask in our admissions process to how we direct flow in CAPS.  We have had success in limiting high-risk behaviors at Foxfield; we need to extend that success to other high-risk events. 

We will also fund and open a police substation on the Corner, and provide more joint patrols between the Charlottesville police and the University police, especially on the weekends.  We also plan to provide a new type of unarmed security personnel whose job will be to assist students and others on weekend nights in the Corner and Wertland areas.  We also intend to implement another phase of our campus lighting plan to increase nighttime visibility on the Grounds.

In the spring, I encourage the Sexual Misconduct Board to find ways to allow students to learn more about their processes.  It is time for an open discussion about what we will and will not tolerate among members of our community.  We include students in the adjudication process because we believe student self-governance to be an important part of student life here.  This practice has become controversial, and it is important that students consider carefully whether this is still the correct approach. 

On my wrist today I am wearing a bracelet that was given to me last week by a rape survivor.  We talked for nearly two hours about a brutal assault inflicted on her at another university.  I have three takeaways from that conversation.  First, rape can destroy lives.  She is strong and resilient and rebuilding her life, but it has taken her full-time effort, the constant effort of her family, and the support of therapists to put her life back together.  Second, rape is not about sex.  Her rape was about domination, anger, isolating your victim, and then making her believe that if she ever talks, something even worse will befall her.   Third, rape is a national problem –  it happened at this young woman’s college, but it also happens in the military, the workplace, and our high schools.  Now our university has been placed at the center of this crisis.  We will not shrink from it.  We will lead.  I will make periodic reports to the community on what we are doing, and you can hold me accountable for our efforts.

This is a community of good people who commit themselves to high ideals.   This is a community of wise and intelligent people who are able to solve hard problems and create novel solutions.  This is also a community of determination and resolve, and we embrace change when change is needed.    There is a piece of our culture that is broken, and I ask your help in coming together, as a strong and resilient community, to fix it.   

Our founder Thomas Jefferson reminds us: “It is more honorable to repair a wrong than to persist in it.”  We will repair this wrong.  In this dark hour we will find light.  And we will not stop until every student feels safe and secure and free to learn and live and grow.  We must do this because our mission is to deliver a great educational experience, and we cannot succeed in our mission if our students are not safe.