University faculty respond to Rolling Stone article released Wednesday

Faculty Senate releases statement, departments hold student discussions

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American Studies faculty held a special edition of their regular event 'Pizza and Praxis' to discuss prominent issues on Grounds since the publication of the Rolling Stone article. 

John Pappas | Cavalier Daily

Amid a sea of protests, University faculty have been active participants in the dialogue permeating Grounds which critically analyzes the University's culture and policies surrounding sexual assault. In addition to organizing a rally Saturday night on Beta Bridge, faculty from a swath of departments have issued statements and held discussions to help promote constructive change on Grounds, after a Rolling Stone article published last week thrust the University community into the national spotlight over the administration's handling of sexual assault cases.

Asst. Religious Studies Prof. Matt Hedstrom said faculty may be better positioned than students to help promote long-term change in culture and policies surrounding sexual assault.

“We pledge to engage with the administration, staff, students, and alumni to foster a safe community, grounded in dignity and integrity, free of violence,” the statement says.

Photo: John Pappas

“Students, in a way, are limited based on the fact they’re here four years,” Hedstrom said. “If we’re talking about things that have a reach over a span of time, that’s where administrators and faculty and alumni provide, in some ways, a wider perspective than current students can. [However,] pressure from students can make a huge, huge difference.”

Faculty Senate responds

The Faculty Senate's executive council released a statement Nov. 21, calling upon the entire faculty of the University to participate in the process of amending the “culture that allows violence to occur."

The letter, signed by Executive Council Chair Joe Garofalo, Chair-Elect Nina Solenski and Past-Chair Chris Holstege, along with Greg Saathoff, chair of the General Faculty Council, condemns the sexual assault described in the Rolling Stone article and urges the University community to act with “sensitivity and sound judgment” while the police conduct their investigation into the allegations.

“We pledge to engage with the administration, staff, students, and alumni to foster a safe community, grounded in dignity and integrity, free of violence,” the statement reads.

The Faculty Senate will hold a meeting Dec. 17 which help determine what specific action the faculty will take to achieve these goals, Garofalo said in an email.

“Our Faculty Senate meeting will be devoted to an open discussion of sexual violence, focusing on what is being done and what actions need to be taken,” he said.

Saathoff said the entire community — faculty, staff and students — shares the responsibility to make real change in the University to protect the students from sexual assault. But he acknowledged faculty may play a special role in the process.

“I think it’s important to listen to perspectives of the faculty and compare and contrast what the situation is here with others,” Saathoff said. “Now that this topic has been opened up I think it gives us an opportunity as a faculty to listen even more closely and thoughtfully.”

The English department said the Faculty Senate's statement failed to capture the necessary activism and policy changes the administration must take. In an open letter, the department highlighted the appointment of Mark Filip, a member of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, to serve as independent counsel to review the University's sexual assault policies as a clear failing on the administration's failure to adequately respond to the issue. A Phi Kappa Psi party is the scene of a graphic gang rape described in the Rolling Stone article.

Attorney General Mark Herring announced Friday morning that Filip would not serve as independent counsel in the investigation, given his ties to the fraternity.

“We just wanted to voice our outrage about that obvious conflict of interest,” English Prof. Caroline Rody said. “By the time we made the statement, he had already been removed from consideration.”

Departments foster faculty-student dialogue

The English department also hosted an event Monday titled “We Need to Talk,” which brought students and faculty together to meet and discuss the article and sexual assault on Grounds. The talk, held in Minor Hall, brought a diverse range of people to discuss the issues through a literary lens, before breaking into small groups so students could voice their frustrations and interpretations of recent events.

Because of the toll these events have had on the student body, the professors thought it necessary to provide an outlet for expression, Rody said.

“We need to create a movement for students to think through these awful events and all of the problems with sexual violence on this campus," she said.

English Prof. Brad Pasanek said after the article was published he felt his students "didn’t know how to talk about what’s going on.”

“They had a lot of emotions and feelings and didn’t know how to articulate how they felt," he said. "[Students] didn’t know how to talk about what was happening, and weren’t sure how to speak in a way that would effect change."

English Prof. Gregory Orr said the event was part of an effort to foster what he hoped would be a student-led reforms.

“All we can do is gather the energy of people who want it to change and to be part of that energy,” he said.

Pasanek said he was pleased with how the students expressed their thoughts, and he said there need to be more outlets for student expression.

“Our students are extremely articulate, it’s just that they just don’t have places to speak, there aren’t opportunities,” Pasanek said. “Every time an undergraduate opens their mouth and speaks to me, I’m always blown away.”

The American Studies program held a similar event — reframing its regular "Pizza and Praxis" event, traditionally a chance for students to informally interact with their professors, into a candid dialogue about sexual violence at the University.

Hedstrom said the American Studies program is uniquely situated to foster this type of discussion.

“That’s what we do in American studies,” Hedstrom said. “We study culture. We think about how culture works – how it’s produced and propagated, and what kinds of texts and sources and institutions make it come alive in people’s lives.”

Assoc. American Studies Prof. Sandhya Shukla said she was shocked when she read the Rolling Stone article.

“I also felt a deep sense of regret that I had not connected with students about this issue before,” Shukla said in an email. “These revelations have mobilized many faculty, myself included, to commit to know exactly what is going on, and how we can take a stand to change the situation.”

Assoc. American Studies Prof. Anna Brickhouse said the American Studies program is committed to being an outlet for student perspectives.

“As everyone knows, there is now a national conversation on this issue taking place,” Brickhouse said in an email. “We want to be sure our students have a place to talk about it and to think about positive steps that they and we can take for our university community.”

American Studies faculty member Lisa Goff said it is important to self-examine — something emphasized in the program's pushback against American exceptionalism and directly applicable to the University community.

“Loving a place, and even feeling loyal to a place, should not stop you from facing hard truths,” she said.

The French department held a similar discussion between students and faculty. The event sought “to discuss, vent frustrations and concerns, and begin to deal with the troubling, indeed painful events that have impacted our community recently,” said French Prof. Ari Blatt, who chairs the department.

Next Steps

The Faculty Senate Planning Committee will lead a faculty meeting next Tuesday, Dec. 2, to more squarely address and debate the ways faculty can take action in response to the Rolling Stone article.

Planning Committee Co-Chair Rae Blumberg said she hopes the meeting will foster collaboration which creates policy to prevent sexual assault and improve University response efforts to be more "respectful and helpful to the people involved.”

Blumberg said she was hopeful for how the University community could come together to deal with the tragic issue of sexual assault.

“Out of this potential disaster it can lead to something really good,” she said. “[It is] bringing people of different levels together in the University.”

The meeting, an extra hour long, will be a “free ranging conversation” on any number of ways the committee can develop a program to deal with the issue in a concrete way.

Though he said the faculty-led response is important, Saathoff emphasized the most important impetus of change is still the opinion of the students.

“Before proposing any kind of strategy, I think it’s really important that we hear from as many students as possible who love this University as much as anyone here,” he said.

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