Nothing to See Here

Colleges Lawyer Up Before Claire McCaskill Rape Inquiry

University administrators are taking a crash course on how to deflect the feds’ attention as Congress and the White House try to zero in on sex assaults on campuses.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty

The Obama administration’s focus on campus sexual assault has been a wakeup call for university administrators, but not in the way one would hope. Rather than actually making concrete changes to improve rape and sexual-violence policies, university higher-ups have taken a different route: Lawyer up and line up lobbyists.

This week, Inside Higher Ed published the slides from a presentation to the American Council on Education (ACE) instructing universities how to respond in the most PR-friendly way possible to congressional investigations and Sen. Claire McCaskill’s survey on campus sexual assault. Ada Meloy, general counsel at the ACE, said in an emailed statement that it "conducted the webinar after receiving numerous questions from our members concerning a survey about campus sexual assault sent to hundreds of colleges and universities by Sen. McCaskill." The ACE is working with Covington & Burling, a Washington law firm that advises major corporations on how best to combat congressional pressure.For example, last year it helped Chiquita lobby against the 9/11 attack victims’ bill. [Disclosure: The Daily Beast is also a client of Covington & Burling.] Meloy said the presentation was given free of charge and noted Covington & Burling "has given similar presentations numerous times."

The ACE has members from more than 1,700 two- and four-year public and private institutions, including most of the 55 schools named in the Department of Education’s recent investigation into Title IX violations regarding sexual assault.

McCaskill had previously been denied access to the presentation, which she requested last month. She had been seeking not only access to the presentation materials, but also a list of ACE members who attended the webinar. Covington & Burling attorney Robert K. Kelner wrote a rejection to this request this week. In a letter (PDF) to the senator’s office on behalf of the ACE, Kellner claims that McCaskill’s “request for the presentation is extremely unusual” and her desire for a list of members attending “cannot be reconciled with the First Amendment right of free association.”

But the ACE appears to be readying itself for a PR battle rather than a constitutional one. Covington & Burling’s presentation indicates U.S. universities seem more focused on playing defense against the feds than actually reforming the process of reporting, prosecuting, and, most importantly, preventing sexual assault on campus. Meloy said the "ACE and our members recognize the seriousness and complexity of addressing incidents of sexual assault. We have offered the senator several avenues to bring her message to our members and look forward to working with her on this grave societal problem." However, the message in the presentation slides is clear: Universities, cover your ass. Students—both victims and the accused—are not even an afterthought; they are completely left out of the guidelines.

What is present in the guidelines on the slides are a number of ways to maintain a good reputation and evade questions. When it comes to an oversight hearing, Covington & Burling recommends that colleges keep in mind “What will play well on TV” and to hold “many, many mock Q&A sessions.” Colleges are also warned that congressional investigations are a “‘Wild West’ without real rules.”

But the firm advises schools to remember that this isn’t about creating real change or instituting reforms, anyway. It is about “demonstrat[ing] to the public—in real time—that Congress is on the job.” Next to a rather menacing picture of McCaskill, the slides hype the potential for “litigation or regulatory risks,” as well as “reputational harm.” Luckily for these schools, Covington & Burling says they can “use the media to learn Congress’s intended direction.”

Meloy stressed in her email that, "At no time did the webinar direct colleges and universities on how to respond specifically to the survey, nor at any time did the webinar discourage institutions from responding. In fact, campuses were strongly encouraged to respond." It is true that the presentation guidelines do not suggest specific content or answers regarding sexual assault questions in the survey, but they do include several recommendations for how to dodge and weave inquiries. Above all, universities are instructed to look for “opportunity for negotiation” and “opportunity to recast the questions.”

Completely absent from Covington & Burling’s recommendations is a single mention of sexual-assault victims, let alone any substantive changes to campus policies regarding rape and violence.

Instead, it’s all about prepping “bulletproof” answers and spinning the story. It’s classic DC lobbying and basic Beltway PR that many groups have relied upon when facing federal investigations. But it is especially disappointing that higher education has reacted to congressional inquiries and national outcries for reform no better than corporate America. Parents and students pay universities on average $30,094 for a private colleges and $8,893 for in-state public universities per year not only to educate in the classroom, but also to ensure a safe learning environment. Instead of substantively responding to these failed expectations, the ACE takes a spin-cycle approach. It seems only too clear the schools care more about their images than the students entrusted to them.

These are institutions that are meant to promote the pursuit of intellectualism and honesty. Both Harvard and Knox College, two of the universities cited in the federal investigation, have veritas, Latin for truth, as their mottos. Perhaps it is naïve to expect higher morals from universities than from corporations just because they are in the business of teaching teenagers about Rousseau and Balzac rather than shipping bananas. But the hypocrisy is apparent, and it is nothing short of revolting, especially when it comes to dealing with the very real and very pervasive problem of mishandled sexual assault.