If there’s one thing that characterizes University of Virginia alumni, it’s loyalty and pride. We’re proud of having attended one of the top public schools in the nation, proud of its founder, Thomas Jefferson (often endearingly invoked as “T.J.”), and proud of the integrity and values of the university he created, and the students who attend it.
But there was only shame and disappointment from my fellow Wahoos on Facebook Wednesday night after reading Rolling Stone’s sobering article about a girl named Jackie who was gang-raped at a fraternity party in 2012 and the administration’s lack of response to what is clearly a problem with sexual violence on campus. Sexual assault is not unique to UVA. It is a longtime problem at schools around the country, one that is just starting to get the widespread attention and outrage that it deserves. But for a school that takes pride in holding itself to a higher standard to have the all-too-common reaction of inaction is disheartening and disgusting. If any school should be taking the lead in changing a system of violence, it should be this one.
During my time at UVA (I am an ’08 graduate), I was a member of the Greek system and was known to attend a fraternity party or two, particularly during my freshman year (or first year, in UVA parlance). While I never personally experienced sexual violence nor had friends—that I know of, at least—who experienced it to the severity that Jackie did, we heard enough stories of girls who had. They were spoken of in a whisper.
I did know girls who had had sexual experiences when they were too drunk to fully know what was going on. They clearly had negative feelings about what happened, but because of the culture of heavy drinking and the shame that goes with being a victim who did not clearly say “no,” they felt their experience couldn’t fully be classified as “rape.”
And because the school was not known to be overwhelmingly supportive when it came to sexual assault, the girls accepted the guilt for what happened and said nothing.
UVA prides itself on holding all students to a high standard of accountability and integrity. It does this primarily through the Honor System, a code of conduct that students agree to when they accept a spot at the school in which they promise not to lie, cheat, or steal. This pledge extends not only to on-grounds affairs, but also to students’ behavior in the surrounding community and when representing the school elsewhere. The Honor Code does not suffer any shades of grey. If you are found by a committee of students to be guilty of violating the Honor Code, you are expelled. As Rolling Stone points out, 183 students have been expelled since 1998. Yet not one person has received the same punishment for sexual assault.
The Honor System was established to “create a school-wide community of trust” after a student shot and killed a law professor in 1840. While it was created to hold students accountable for their behavior, it has become mostly a tool to deal with academic violations—primarily cheating and plagiarism. And while such a severe punishment is questioned every few years, it works. In general, students are extremely careful when it comes to schoolwork because we know the consequences.
So why is the same standard not being applied to student behavior when it comes to even more serious transgressions? UVA has a strong community known for coming together in times of need. Just over two short months ago, the disappearance of second year student Hannah Graham spawned an outpouring of support, love, and outrage. The administration worked arm-in-arm with the police department to find her and to charge her alleged murderer, Jesse Leroy Matthew, when it became clear that the worst had happened.
Why do we demand justice for our students when the threat comes from outside the academic community (although Matthew did work for a time at the University of Virginia Medical Center), but we don’t afford victims the same support and justice when they are violated by members of their own “community of trust”?
President Teresa Sullivan released a statement Wednesday evening assuring the University community that the administration is taking this issue seriously. But her assurances fall flat. She wrote of new “initiatives and policies aimed at fostering a culture of reporting and raising awareness of the issues” and also said that Jackie’s story in Rolling Stone “include[ed] many details that were previously not disclosed to University officials.”
But it’s clear that awareness, while important, is not enough anymore. While the fraternity at the heart of the story, Phi Kappa Psi, voluntarily suspended their activities on Thursday, the action needs to go even deeper. Students like Jackie need to feel comfortable confiding in university administrators and confident that when they do, they will receive support and justice. Thomas Jefferson’s school must continue its culture of honor, but that should mean that students do not lie, do not cheat, do not steal, and do not commit acts of sexual assault, ever. And when there are transgressions, the perpetrators should be brought to justice, not protected. It shouldn’t take a breakout article in a national publication to get the school to take action.
UVA is an incredible school, one at which I had a rich and fulfilling experience and that I am grateful for making me the person that I am. That’s why the administration’s lack of action when it comes to sexual assault is heartbreaking—it’s a betrayal of the values that the school stands for and the lifelong community it hopes to create. For the first time since I put my acceptance letter in the mail, I woke up this morning ashamed of my alma mater.