BERNSTEIN: Starting at the top

Addressing the issue of sexual assault at the University requires a focus at the administrative level

Rolling Stone’s recent article about sexual assault at the University has already invoked a wide range of emotions from the student body. For some, the piece is an unfounded attack on our school; for others, it is a recognition of a harsh reality; and for what I suspect is a large majority of us, it falls somewhere in between. It is now our task as students to determine how to respond to that article — not to the magazine, but within our own community.

There are several important takeaways from this piece, the most important being that, regardless of what elements of the piece are debatable, there is a problem with how this school handles sexual assault. Yes, this article could have been written about virtually any university. Replace “UVA” with any of the schools on the Obama administration’s list for Title IX violations — and even schools not on that list — and the article probably would not change significantly. For that reason, it feels immensely frustrating to be singled out, when inaction on rape and sexual assault cases persists across the country. But singled out or not, we should not evaluate our adjudicative processes comparatively; we should evaluate them using standards that are independent of the processes of other schools.

With this in mind, it becomes increasingly difficult to know where to start our analysis. The Rolling Stone article pinpoints several roots of our University’s problem, the first being the school’s deference to Greek life. On this count, it is hard to argue with Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of the piece. After terminating its Fraternal Organization Agreement with Pi Kappa Alpha (PiKA) last year for incidents of hazing, the University allowed the fraternity — which, notably, was Dean Groves’ fraternity when he was a student — to return to Grounds. As Erdely rightly points out, the school has been unbelievably slow to investigate Phi Kappa Psi despite many allegations of sexual assault.

This argument, and others, are persuasive. But where Erdely falters is in her effort to condemn the student body alongside the administration, as though they are equally at fault — when in reality, students have been the source of most if not all of the discussion of sexual assault on our campus.

Pointing to the University’s Honor code, Erdely makes the point University students have heard so often: there is something inherently shameful about students being expelled for cheating or plagiarism and not for sexual assault. This is undeniable, but her mention of this ignores the differences between Honor offenses and sexual assault cases — namely, that students handle one, and the administration handles the other. This is not to suggest that students should handle sexual assault cases (in fact, I have argued the opposite); rather, there is a difference in the standards students hold their peers to, compared with the standards the administration appears to hold.

In particular, I take issue with Erdely’s statement that the “genteel University of Virginia has no radical feminist culture seeking to upend the patriarchy.” We cannot deny there is some pervasive culture here that allows abuses to occur. But we have undeniably excellent student groups aimed at addressing this very issue. Groups like One Less — which is far from a “secret society,” as Erdely writes — and One in Four create a network of support that is clearly unparalleled by the administration. The Handprint Project, started by University students, encourages students to be active bystanders especially on Boys’ Bid Night, a night that typically sees spikes in reports of sexual assault. Take Back the Night Week, which Erdely describes as “the pinnacle of [University students’] polite activism,” is no small undertaking and even includes a Sexual Misconduct Board mock trial. Recently, the University Judiciary Committee has moved to revamp its sexual misconduct subcommittee.

So we see the problem is not a lack of effort from the student body, but rather a lack of response from the administration, an area where Erdely and I agree. Our school has notoriously mishandled sexual assault cases. Of course, the administration is not to blame for the fact that sexual assaults occur — that blame lies squarely with the perpetrators. But the administration is to blame for allowing a culture to persist in which perpetrators continue to offend without fear of punishment. The burden to fix this does not lie with students, though many students, impressively, have chosen to take that burden on.

Moving forward, the administration is left with no choice but to reform how it handles sexual misconduct cases. A recent theme at our school has been finding the good in the bad — especially with the devastating, recent loss of two peers (one of which, frankly, should not have been mentioned in the Rolling Stone article for lack of relevance). This is never an easy task, yet here again, we have been afforded an opportunity to find the good. Environments like Phi Psi may foster some of the most egregious actions imaginable, and students who engage in such behavior are far too prevalent at our school. But that does not mean there is no community at this school for survivors. The issue at hand is that this supportive community does not seem to extend to the administration; this is where we should focus our efforts, and this is where we should seek improvement.

Dani Bernstein is a Senior Associate Editor for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at d.bernstein@cavalierdaily.com.

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