Rape, assault, cheating on tests, police brutality, excessive drinking and sports scandals are racking higher education.
We are seeing an explosion of high profile news that is clearly the exception of life in America’s universities and colleges. Clearly most students are serious, responsible, hard working and respectful of each other.
That's not news. We don't report when tens of thousands of airplanes take off and land safely. We obsess when an airliner crashes and people die. Bad news inevitably is the news.
The University of Virginia is exceptionally plagued by rolling bad news.
Now we are confronted with the headline "Police find no evidence in Rolling Stone investigation, suspend inquiry." You all know the details:
“Police launched [an] investigation in November at the request of University President Teresa Sullivan after [Rolling Stone] magazine published an article detailing a graphic sexual assault of a then-first year student. . . in Sept. 2012 at a fraternity house. The fraternity at the center of the initial fervor was cleared of any involvement in the incident back in January.”
Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, where the incident allegedly took place, has been irreparably damaged and its members apparently slandered. The organization and many of its members are now condemned to permanent damage in an unforgiving Internet environment where nothing ever goes away.
Obviously as they say in politics, "mistakes were made."
Rolling Stone violated every principle of responsible journalism in publishing an un-vetted story by a reporter who never bothered to verify the horrible story.
The University administration bypassed due diligence in not deploying its legal team to follow up on this incident. In this case they just "trusted" and did not "verify."
Most of journalism also ran with the original story and did not approach such a devastating narrative with special care and responsibility.
Many organizations at U.Va. who jumped on board the bandwagon of this saga also deserve our condemnation. Their actions were driven by the mob mentality that surrounded this story from the day the Rolling Stone article ran.
How do we now "walk back" all of this, repair the damage if possible and set a precedent that will encourage more responsible treatment and verification of future incidents?
In the United States we should always correct the damage we do, whether in a car accident or a social and legal train wreck such as this. Lawsuits with very large damages awarded to the parties that have been damaged are in order. Clearly Rolling Stone is going to be the primary object of litigation. However, University administrators who often hide behind pious shields and the fact that they woe for a "public" institution must not be let off the hook — no catch and release for them. Some of the news media who ran with the story without fact-checking also need a major monetary punishment slammed on them. There are consequences to erroneous and irresponsible reporting.
This tragic story should serve as a lesson in caution and responsibility. I am an optimist and don't believe there is an existential crisis in higher education. I do think there are problems that need to be corrected but with prudence, responsibility and diligence.
Professor of Political Science
Iowa State University