Ms. audiences by now have likely read the Nov. 19 article by the now-embattled Rolling Stone that drew attention to the alleged mishandling of rape cases at the University of Virginia. Some Ms. readers also may have followed the outpouring of outrage against the university on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
As professors in other Virginia institutions of higher learning, we add our voices to the outrage and demand action. We have been doing this for years—writing semi-annual letters to former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, and the current governor, Terry McAuliffe; sending letters to the editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and The Wall Street Journal and penning poetry and plays that protest the continued violations of Titles VII and IX on our campuses.
We started our efforts to create change on campuses and, with each new report of sexual discrimination, harassment and violence, we have become only more committed to addressing the lack of response from college and university administrations.
Two deeds that are repeated time and again: violent acts against women and the institutional cover-ups of these very acts.
College administrations have created glossy brochures and webpages that peddle high academic standards, diverse course offerings and many co- and extracurricular options in a safe and lively social environment. But their lofty institutional mission statements and imposing honor systems turn deaf ears to problems of gender. Gender inequity does not fit neatly into the cultural traditions of our institutions and, by and large, is concealed. Colleges and universities have ignored the crimes and calls for help and, even worse, have prevented victims from seeking their legal rights.
A friend with a daughter who is a junior in high school wondered recently: How we can send our children to college knowing the statistics of violence against women as we do? Would we send them into other contexts with similarly bad odds?
Below is a glimpse of our attempts to reach out to the governor’s office in Virginia. The continued lack of response reveals the Commonwealth’s indifference regarding the crimes committed against women on its campuses.
Here’s an excerpt from the 2011 letter we wrote to former Gov. McDonnell:
We find ourselves sadly inspired to write to you by the horrific stories of sexual assault and institutional cover-up at Penn State and Syracuse University. As women professors with our own experiences of sexual harassment and institutional concealment at two different Virginia schools, we are writing to request that you ask institutions of higher education throughout the Commonwealth to review carefully their policies on sexual assault and harassment.
We wrote four additional letters to McDonnell and finally received a response—which we reference in our fifth letter, the first we sent to current Gov. Terry McAuliffe. It begins,
In January of 2012, August of 2012 and June of 2013, we wrote letters to Governor McDonnell requesting information from him and his office on how they were addressing issues of sexual assault and harassment at our Virginia public and private institutions. After our second letter, we received a response from the Executive Secretary of Education that simply asked us to ‘be patient.’ Unfortunately, as we were being patient, victims were suffering.
We did not receive a response.
After reading about the alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, we are beyond frustrated that our efforts to reach out to the governor have not yet been enough. As we were “patient,” women were being raped on campuses and left to fend for themselves.
The University of Virginia is even on the list of 55 schools being investigated by the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights for poor handling of sexual assault. Despite being under federal scrutiny, a gang rape in a fraternity house did not force the University of Virginia administrators to act forcefully enough.
When will the rapes stop? When will campus administrators stop covering up the crime to protect the reputation of the institution? If having one in five women sexually assaulted is not a convincing enough statistic, what number do they think we have to get to?
The University of Virginia and other institutions of higher learning need to rely upon gender experts in their academic communities. A Board of Visitors consults with its financial experts for advice on balancing the budget and making capital investments. It should count on its gender experts for advice on the prevention of sexual misconduct and on institutional messages surrounding this issue.
The Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia wrote a “Statement on Sexual Assault” and approved it on Nov. 25. One statement caught our eye: “We will not permit any tradition to be preserved if it jeopardizes a student’s safety.”
Now is the moment for the University of Virginia and all colleges and universities to forthrightly examine their mission statements, traditions and values in order to ferret out the inequities, eliminate the hypocrisies and ensure a safe, welcoming educational environment for all.
Photo courtesy of Zach Stern at Creative Commons 2.0.
Stacey K. Vargas is a Professor of Physics at the Virginia Military Institute. Her current research involves the use of ultra-short pulsed lasers in wireless broadband telecommunications. She also has an established laser spectroscopy research program that investigates the optical properties on ions doped into solid state crystals and glasses.