On sexual assault: letters from the community

Change will be painful, but possible

Dear President Sullivan:

I am writing as an alumna, a Jefferson and Echols Scholar, and one of many concerned native daughters of Virginia. For most of the past week I have been losing sleep, as I imagine you have too, over the growing storm of revelations about sexual violence at UVA.

They show me that nothing has changed in the 30 years since I arrived on Grounds.

While I was not raped at UVA, I had my close calls. During first year I went to about a dozen fraternity parties; I was not rushing a sorority, and had only a few friends who were fraternity brothers, but already knew a good number of first- and second-year students because the Jefferson and Echols Scholar communities were so tight-knit. Because of that, I was watched over and protected, when we all made the rounds on Rugby Road. On at least one occasion, during a particularly boozy Sigma Nu party, I was scooped up by my male friends and taken back to Watson Hall when it was clear I had become vulnerable. The next year, as I was walking alone back to Lambeth Field from a University Singers party, a University police officer picked me up and drove me to my apartment, admonishing me that I was really taking a foolish risk of being assaulted. So I escaped harm. But I was aware that others had not. Everyone knew, first year, about the girl who woke up on a couch at a frat house and never found out who had raped her. Second year, one of my friends got HSV when she was raped. Neither of these students — none of the women, in fact, who were raped in my sphere of awareness at the University — ever saw their assailants prosecuted.

And here we are with the same sickening state of affairs. Last week I lamented to a friend “that article could have been written when we were there” — but then she reminded me that it was. By a friend of ours, and published in the University Journal. And I felt even sicker. The only thing worse, she observed, is that we now know just how twisted the University administration’s responses have become. In what world, I would like to know, is it accepted that the remedy for rape is to have the victim face the rapist and tell him how the attack made her feel? As a psychiatrist, I cannot even begin to comprehend where this comes from. If the goal was to not “be the rape school”, I suppose that has been achieved – instead, I am now known to have graduated from the “we do nothing about rape” school.

UVA was never where I wanted to go in the first place. I had been accepted to Yale on early admission, well before Christmas. That was where I wanted to go, and I only went through with the Jefferson Scholar competition to humor my parents and the college counselor at my high school. As a life-long outsider at that private girls’ school, I had no intention of going to the preppy old-fashioned university just 70 miles from home, where so many of my classmates would be. But I fell in love with the University during the Jefferson weekend that February, and I have told people all the rest of my life that it was the best decision I ever made, forsaking Yale for UVA. I found my niche, made lifelong friends, got a world-class education, and was set on the road to a Mellon Fellowship, a Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley, and a tenure-track job at U.C. San Diego. When I switched gears to medicine, I readily got accepted at several top medical schools, then my first choice for residency, and I now have a very successful practice in psychiatry. I attribute much of my success to the formative time I spent at UVA. And right now, what I’m getting asked about by family and friends is whether I am surprised by the Rolling Stone article; it shames me to admit that I am not. It pains me to re-visit those early memories of the brutalization of my peers, now that I sit in a room with survivors of rape on an almost-daily basis, trying to restore to them the sleep, the confidence, the ability to engage in healthy relationships that they were robbed of years ago.

You, President Sullivan, are uniquely positioned to revolutionize the University on this issue. As the first female president, who won her way back into office in unprecedented fashion, you are already a pioneer. Despite the stain of some very unpleasant history that has continued on your watch, you have an opportunity now to lead in a way that no other university president in the country has yet done: taking a prestigious institution from the dark ages into the modern world, from a culture of tradition-above-all-else to a culture of eliciting respectable behavior from students, and punishing crimes to the fullest extent of the law.

Students will drink. First-year students will drink even more. Most students will make some dubious decisions and engage in some risky behavior; sexually dangerous boundaries will be crossed. Dark and horrifying things will happen, and there is no way to prevent all of them. But systematic violence against women must and can be diminished.

Abolish the Greek system. You will be condemned by a generation of men — actually more; current fraternity members as well as their fathers and grandfathers, who make up a huge segment of donors. You will also go down in history as the person who made UVA safer for generations of women. You will make it a place we want to send our daughters and granddaughters to, and eventually this will more than make up the losses. Even if it did not, it would be the right choice.

Tear down the current Sexual Misconduct Board, and build something new from scratch. Find out how the best universities, in this country and abroad, handle the inevitable problem of rape. Turn your university from a haven for sociopaths into a healthy place for growth into young adulthood.

It will be painful, and there is no way to emerge from this without the lasting scorn of some party or other. Knowing that, I hope you will draw on your already evident courage, and make us proud. I lobbied for your reinstatement two and a half years ago, along with many of my peers; you earned it then. Earn our further faith now.

Sincerely,

Kathleen A. Erwin

CLAS 1987


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