Friday, December 5, 2014

Lessons for the university from the U of VA evolving story

Tough lessons
Universities around the country have been under pressure to improve their handling of sexual harassment/assault policies.  Recently, California adopted a standard of overt mutual consent for sexual activity for universities.  The evolving story of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia makes clear the potential difficulty faced by the university in dealing with this issue.  Particularly when there are allegations of sexual assault, criminal activity is potentially involved.  Standards of criminal law and due process arise.  The degree to which university processes can provide such due process has been questioned.

In the U of Virginia case, an allegation of gang rape at a fraternity was reported as fact by Rolling Stone magazine.*  But questions of verification began to be raised.  You may have seen a recent op ed in the LA Times by conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg referring to these questions.**  In fact, the Goldberg column was largely based on critiques by others.  But his view was attacked in the "blowback" blog of the LA Times, in part because he had attended a college that didn't have fraternities.***  However, LA Times columnist Meghan Daum then wrote a piece which raised similar questions.****  And now Rolling Stone has retracted its earlier story.*****

The problem for UCLA and other universities is that in adjudicating allegations of sexual harassment and assault, they have to be able to filter out false or even just unverifiable allegations, even if these are rare.  Rolling Stone at this point is embarrassed and can resolve its problem by apologizing:

"We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story."

Universities can be sued and, in any case, are expected to follow fair procedures.  The idea of due process is to avoid hopefully rare cases of a miscarriage of justice based on allegations that cannot be substantiated.  Apologies won't be sufficient if such outcomes occur.

In prior postings, we have noted that most cases of sexual harassment/assault in the university context are likely to be student-on-student.  However, faculty members can also be charged and there can be adverse personnel actions taken against faculty and long-term career implications.  As the U of Virginia case illustrates, very sensitive issues are involved.  Whatever procedures are put in place at UCLA, they will have to exceed Rolling Stone standards.  The Academic Senate will need to monitor both procedures and outcomes.
***  The objection to the column begins, "In his recent column questioning allegations of brutal rape at a University of Virginia fraternity, Jonah Goldberg made clear -- though he didn't say explicitly -- that he has never been in a fraternity. In fact, some quick research shows that his alma mater has not had any Greek presence on its campus for decades."
**** "(S)ince many of the first askers of that question (concerning verification) had conservative or libertarian leanings, the feminist backlash was almost immediate. When The Times' resident conservative columnist, Jonah Goldberg, examined holes in the story, his usual critics dismissed his conjectures as mere right-wing pushback against political correctness..."
*****  The Rolling Stone apology quoted above can be found at this link.  It also now appears with the original story.

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