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Great expectations

President Sullivan’s address on sexual assault indicates she is taking a passionate and reasoned course of action

University President Teresa Sullivan delivered an address to students Monday about the issue of sexual assault at the University. In her address, Sullivan broke down the problem into a series of questions, exploring each individually.

Overall, Sullivan’s approach in her address indicates that she has a comprehensive understanding of this issue — that there are many moving parts which contribute to the problem, which is not specific to this university.

Sullivan focused on the connection between the past and the present, expressing dismay at reports from alumni that nothing has changed since their time at the University. Rape is not a new problem; any institutional changes which have occurred thus far have not been sufficient to address it. Sullivan expressed a determination to make the climate change in the immediate future. She said, “I want Friday and Saturday nights in the spring to look different than the way they looked this fall.”

Many criticized Sullivan’s initial email to the student body in response to Rolling Stone’s article, saying she was too passive, too stoic and was only trying to appease the student body while taking no real action. Monday’s address indicates Sullivan has no intention of remaining passive, that she has already started to work on this issue, and that she is taking care to consult the major stakeholders in the process of making changes.

We cannot critique many of the policy changes Sullivan said are in the works, because she revealed no details about them. We will remain critical of the effectiveness of any new policy or proposal in the coming months, but what we know now contains promise. One of the preliminary initiatives Sullivan mentioned was working with fraternities to change fraternal organization agreements so that all guests of fraternities are safer. Even before we know what these changes are, we can see that Sullivan recognizes the benefits of working with the Greek system rather than maligning it.

One immediate change Sullivan announced was funding for another trauma counselor at the Women’s Center; Sullivan demonstrated a significant amount of knowledge about trauma, as well as a desire to learn more. She indicated she would be working closely with the Women’s Center to assess what is the best way to support survivors while facilitating reporting. Sullivan also said the University would work more closely with the Charlottesville police department so the two can better understand each other’s investigations, and work to improve police practices so that trauma survivors can be accommodated as best as possible. All of these initiatives indicate Sullivan intends to address the special needs to trauma survivors in her response.

Sullivan also alluded to high schools twice during her remarks, to point out an “unacknowledged” problem of high school students drinking, and to remind the audience of the fact that this is a national issue by stating that sexual assault also occurs in high schools. This could be Sullivan’s way of calling on the nation’s primary and secondary education institutions to help tackle this national issue. Universities can do a lot to address the problem, but high schools can contribute to the solution by confronting the challenges students face in their early teen years, which lay the groundwork for their experiences in college.

In her address, Sullivan managed to strike a balance between the value the University places on tradition, and the current necessity for change. She used Thomas Jefferson’s famous words about “following the truth wherever it may lead” to express her desire to learn more about the potential shortcomings of this institution, and what she can do to address them. She characterized our community as one of innovators who are capable of finding solutions, encouraging us to use the strengths we know we have to enact the change we know we need. At a time like this, we need a leader who will recognize the University’s faults, but also remind us that we still have a solid ground of greatness to stand on, which will carry us through to a brighter future.

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