I study, work and teach on a campus with a rape problem. This week on the campus where I’m a Ph.D. student and GTF (Graduate Teaching Fellow), a scandal erupted involving a rape that was allegedly committed by three members of our university’s championship basketball team. The University of Oregon administration was aware of this incident two months ago, right after it happened, but they said and did nothing. The alleged rapists—one of whom had been suspended from playing basketball last fall at another college across the country after a previous allegation of rape—were allowed to play in NCAA games as if nothing had happened. (They have since been suspended from the UO team). The administration justified its inaction on privacy concerns and the grounds that there was a criminal investigation going on. Predictably, the criminal investigation came to nothing. No charges have been filed, nor will they be. This morning the UO President issued a statement with the requisite statements of concern, but announced no substantive action.
This incident is not isolated. No one knows how much rape occurs on our campus, but I’d venture a guess that it’s a lot. This high-profile case is an outlier for the very simple fact that it was reported—the vast majority of campus rapes aren’t. Last week the Department of Education released a list of 55 universities that have open investigations about whether mishandling of rape cases violated Title IX (a federal law which prohibits discrimination in education on the basis of gender). Our university wasn’t on that list, but that’s hardly a comfort. Campus rape is an epidemic in America. Former President Jimmy Carter, who teaches at Emory University, recently spoke out about it. He said:
Girls are eventually intimidated — and they are warned that if they bring a charge, it won’t be realized with the conviction of the rapist. And this means that on college campuses — and I think I mention a report from the U.S. Department of Justice, that half the rapes on college campuses are perpetrated by serial rapists. Because when they get to the college campus, they realize that they can get away with it, so they proceed with it — and they do it again and again. Why would any university want to keep that kind of student on the campus? I just don’t understand it.
The University of Oregon President responds to questions from the public about the recent rape incident. Taken today, May 9, 2014.
This is shameful. It shames me as a member of a campus community, as a man and as a human being. I’m not content to remain silent, to dismiss it as a “women’s issue” upon which I have no business opining or to assume that “everything that can be done is being done.” Those are excuses. And our cultural and institutional response to rape is essentially an exercise in excuse-making. Excuse-making comprises the vast majority of activity that university campuses engage in whenever a rape is reported or when the broader subject of the epidemic of campus rape is brought up. Almost always it’s about protecting and defending procedures, decisions or actions taken—more often, actions not taken—than about being proactive about the issue itself. The justifications sound eerily familiar, and they surfaced at University of Oregon this week. “We can’t do anything.” “We have to let the criminal justice system handle it.” “We have to protect privacy concerns.” What’s notably missing in this litany of post-hoc justifications is one that goes something like, “We have to prevent women from being raped and men from committing rape,” because that’s the only potential justification that actually requires, you know, action.
One of the things we have to do to break this cycle of excuse-making is to abandon the assumption that law enforcement and the criminal justice system either are or should be the primary means of dealing with rape. When something like 95% of campus rapes are never even reported—that’s Carter’s estimate—it’s painfully obvious that the vast majority of rapes will never interface with law enforcement or the criminal justice system in the first place, and virtually none will ever result in a conviction. Relying on the threat of criminal prosecution to deter rape is like relying on seat belts to deter car crashes. In any event the criminal justice system, in the extremely rare instance in which it does meet a campus rape case, is geared toward adjudicating the guilt of an individual person, not decreasing the incidence of rape in society as a whole. Clearly law enforcement and criminal justice has a long way to go in their collective handing of rape, but that’s not where we should be pinning our hopes in solving the problem.
For starters—and this is addressed toward the issue of specifically campus rape—maybe it would help to actually start prioritizing the education of students rather than matters of peripheral concern, athletics being one. A major spark of outrage in the University of Oregon case is the fact that the alleged rapists were basketball players, and were allowed to continue playing in NCAA games when the university knew what they were accused of doing. This is the answer to Carter’s question, “Why would any university want to keep that kind of student on the campus?” If the student is an athlete in a program that means big money for the university, the answer is self-evident. What about the victim who can’t concentrate on her classes, who is suffering from trauma, whose grades slip, and who sees her attacker walking around campus like nothing happened or with his face on ESPN? Her right to receive an education, for which she and her parents are paying exorbitant amounts of money, has already been egregiously violated by being raped in the first place. Now the university is going to compound her injury and further hamper her education by prioritizing her attackers’ monetary value to the university over her right to get an education? Aren’t we supposed to be an educational institution?
Protesters at Johnson Hall at University of Oregon, demanding answers.
Not all or even most campus rapes are perpetrated by students in athletic programs, to be sure. But unfortunately prioritizing economic priorities, of which athletic programs are just one, over the well-being of students and their abilities to complete their education is all too common throughout American universities. Again to quote Carter, “Why would any university want to keep that kind of student on the campus?” What if a student like that is a legacy admission, the son of alumni who have given money to the university? Is that enough of a justification to avoid taking action against an alleged rapist—especially if you can hide behind “ongoing investigations” or “privacy concerns”? What if that student simply pays tuition? Is that enough? After all, we don’t want to rock the boat, do we? The downside of a university paying serious attention to the problem of campus rape is that in doing so it’s admitting that it has a problem with campus rape. Obviously concerned parents of an 18-year-old high school senior who’s about to go off to college are going to have second thoughts about sending their daughter to a college with a known rape problem. Solving rape problems and combating rape culture is expensive, difficult and publicly awkward. Making excuses not to solve rape problems and combat rape culture is cheap, easy and safe.
The main reason this case is getting a lot of attention is because the alleged perpetrators were basketball players. The athletics vs. survivors narrative is driving the public concern on this campus. But what if they hadn’t been basketball players? If it was just some random “bro” who did this at a party, which happens all the time? I posit the result would be ultimately the same, except without the publicity: the perp goes free, the university takes no substantive action, and the survivor is left to try to put her life back together as best she can–mostly on her own. The next student who will be raped on or near this campus probably won’t have the benefits of crowds gathering in front of the administration building to demand action. It’ll just drop off the radar screen, if it ever hits the radar to begin with. This happens every single day at universities all over America.
I am a member of a campus community. The rape issue is personal to me as well as to my students. I can’t design a magic bullet that will end rapes on college campuses, but in both my personal and my professional opinion somebody somewhere had better start doing something substantive about this issue, because it affects everybody. Unfortunately I see more excuses than action. Somebody start taking action. Please.