One thing is certain at the University of Virginia: the more things change, the more they stay the same. In the aftermath of the Rolling Stone Magazine article detailing the pervasiveness of sexual assault at the University, administrators have issued communications claiming “contradictions between the U.Va. portrayed in the article and the U.Va. that we know.”
Unfortunately, the portrait of U.Va. that has emerged is precisely one that we could have painted during our experiences at the University—in the 1980s and 2000s—where the dominant culture of a fraternal good old boys club holds too much power over student life.
As local school board members, we know firsthand that a news article like that in Rolling Stone tells a story without the benefit of confidential information that the school is not at liberty to divulge. So we tread as lightly as we can. However, as alumni we recognize the painful truth in this tale. We both reacted to the article with the same heartsick sense that, if anything, the climate of sexual violence on Rugby Road has only worsened.
Until now, and for many years, the administration has opted too often for ignoring the truth instead of taking action. While promoting a positive image of the University, administrators simultaneously promote a myth of progress — or “phantom innovation” — in their constant quest for funding and prestige that masks the realities of life on grounds. When administrators avoid publicly addressing those realities, they ultimately fail to take responsibility for them.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more clearly represented than in the response to allegations of sexual assault. The perfect example occurred at the September Board of Visitors meeting at which U.Va. administrators deemed the school a model for handling sexual misconduct and downplayed the significance of the Title IX investigation of the University as a “standard compliance review.” Categorizing rape as “sexual misconduct” in University policy, and in the reactions of so many administrators, is chilling in itself.
The inappropriate manner in which administrators have handled public outcry over sexual assault is similar to how they have addressed other concerns brought forward by student advocates over the years. Too often they hide behind a system of “student self-governance” and a Board of Visitors historically dominated by good old boys instead of insisting that the most pernicious of University traditions be discarded.
Fairfax County Public Schools sends more young women to Virginia’s flagship university than any other school district. We are so proud of these women. We send them to U.Va. to realize the hopes and dreams of their families and communities with the basic expectation that they will be safe. To hear the story of Jackie — a vibrant young woman with a bright future, beaten down by brutal sexual violence at the hands of her own classmates — is sickening. To know that she faced that tragedy alone for months, that her attackers have paid no price, and that her story is just one of many, exposes our beloved Academical Village as a benighted and shame-filled place.
While President Sullivan’s suspension of fraternal organizations and social activities until January 9 is a good start, we call on her and the Board of Visitors to respond with humility and vigor to the painful truths that have become public. We call on them to remove from positions of trust those who knew, kept silent and have downplayed the importance of reform. And, most importantly, we call on them to change the image of U.Va. from the school that we knew to the school that we know it can be.
Pat Hynes (‘81) and Ryan McElveen (‘08) are members of the Fairfax County School Board. The opinions expressed are their own.