Founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, the University of Virginia looks like a postcard. Lush with gardens and adorned with column after column, it is a place shrouded in Jeffersonian tradition as much as it is Jeffersonian myth. UVA earned its nickname as a "Public Ivy," not only for its appearance but for its rigorous academics, which rank among the best in the country. Yet, one year ago, on Nov. 19, 2014, a single story cast a pall over the idyllic school long held in high esteem. In America's imagination, UVA suddenly became the setting for wild frat parties where rape ran rampant. That was after “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault And Struggle for Justice at UVA,” a longform feature by Rolling Stone contributor Sabrina Rubin Erdely.
The now-infamous 9,000-word saga of “Jackie” chronicled the undergraduate's alleged 2012 rape by members of the fraternity Phi Kappa Psi and the confounding aftermath, during which Jackie claimed she was met with doubt and resistance from so-called friends and administrators. Within hours of being posted online, the graphic story went viral — it purported dark trends in fraternity rape, victim shaming, and cover-ups.
The magazine's feature made national headlines when it was published and when it was ultimately retracted. UVA law professor Anne Coughlin, a self-described feminist, says that while the story's detailed account of an alleged rape was certainly shocking, what hurt her and her colleagues more was the story's portrayal of UVA administrators and students as “callous” and “cold.” Friends and administrators alike doubted Jackie's account and failed to show compassion throughout the narrative. "That is not the UVA I know,” she says.
With its story, Rolling Stone intended to expose the frequency of sexual assault on college campuses. NPR reported in September 2015 that a survey of over 150,000 students at over 24 colleges found that "on average, 23 percent of undergraduate women say they were, in some way, sexually assaulted during their time on campus." And just this month, in November of 2015, U.S. News and World Report reported that a staggering one in six American college freshman surveyed said that they were raped during their first year of college when they were too drunk or drugged to get away from their attacker.
But in the immediate aftermath of its publication, as “A Rape On Campus” steadily climbed to a total of 2.7 million page views and inspired multiple online conversations and follow-up think pieces, suspicion about its credibility grew. The frat had always denied the rapes. In April of 2015, it was deemed by the Columbia Journalism Review to be among "the worst journalism of 2014."
Coughlin, for her part, notes that the Rolling Stone story "heightened the belief that women lie."
Before that would happen, five months earlier on Dec. 5, 2014, Rolling Stone's managing editor issued an apology letter that noted, "Within days, commentators started to question the veracity of our narrative." That same letter retracted “A Rape On Campus” and would end up preceding the report delivered by Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism and a Pulitzer-winning reporter, and his associates, who combed through the story to unearth its errors and ethical breaches. The verdict? The tale could not be trusted because of journalistic failures committed by “the reporter, the editor, the editor's supervisor, and the fact-checking department.”
Rolling Stone vowed to overhaul the editorial departments that had signed off on the story, and Erderly described the reading of the report as "a brutal and humbling experience" in her statement. Meanwhile, Rolling Stone has been struck with a $25 million lawsuit from the fraternity in question, Phi Kappa Psi, as well as two other lawsuits waged by Phi Kappa Psi alumni and UVA associate dean Nicole Eramo, who says she was misrepresented in the article.
Coughlin says that, as a law professor who teaches gender issues, campus rape has always been a welcome topic for discussion in her classroom. Like many feminists, she believes the Rolling Stone story did a disservice to rape victims, their advocates, and “the entire movement.” Even though Jackie's credibility about what happened to her on that now-infamous night in 2012 was damaged, no one can say for sure exactly what, if anything, happened to her.
Which is why things need to change. One year after the Rolling Stone story was published, UVA's classrooms are no longer the same. The shift has occurred at a campus-wide academic policy level and according to choices made by individual professors.
The Ensuing Conversations
Coughlin points to several calls for change that occurred on campus after the Rolling Stone article. Last spring, for example, an informal working group of UVA law students began regularly gathering to examine issues related to rape and criminal law. One of the main topics of conversation was Title IX, a federal law that prohibits gender-based discrimination in federally funded educational programs and activities.
What role, if any, they asked, should universities have in investigating and adjudicating rape? What laws should exist, and how should they be enforced?
Meanwhile, administrators and faculty at the Law School gave advice regarding the revision of the university's policy on sexual and gender-based harassment. Kimberly Reich, director of media relations at UVA School of Law, tells Bustle, "Additionally, all Law School students and employees are now required to complete training modules designed to help prevent sexual and gender-based harassment."
The Law School was not the only campus body responding to the article. Denise Walsh, a professor of Women, Gender & Sexuality studies at UVA, tells Bustle that the Rolling Stone story inspired many professors in the School of Arts and Sciences to amend their syllabi: "The most common change, according to informal student feedback I received this semester, was to include a statement noting the resources available at the university for anyone struggling with gender, sexual, or domestic violence."
She adds that regular conversations about the story took place during class in November and December last year. After the story was published, Walsh decided to open up her classes to all students and faculty who wished to discuss the Rolling Stone article. She said that they talked about everything from the seriousness of Jackie's alleged assault to the challenges of addressing sexual assault across college campuses.
"I opened one of my [gender-based violence] classes to all faculty and students who wished to discuss the Rolling Stone article," she says. “A number of faculty and students attended and talked about many aspects of the story, from concern about the seriousness of the assault reported to how to address sexual assault across college campuses.”
"I can say that gender-based violence issues are much more part of the classroom conversation — and that is the result of what students are interested in talking about as well as what faculty are willing to discuss," Walsh adds.
A Student Collective On Gender Violence
In September this year, Walsh and Nick Winter, a professor in UVA's Department of Politics whose research interests include gender and politics, drafted a proposal for a University Of Virginia-based Institute on Power, Violence, and Inequality that would focus on understanding and preventing sexual violence. It would explore sexual violence on university campuses, in wartime situations, home environments, and other spaces around the world, according to the proposal.
"Specifically, gender-, race-, sexuality-, and other power-based violence are particularly complex and intellectually important because they all occur at the intersections of systems of legitimate and illegitimate power and formal and informal systems of authority," write Walsh and Winter in the proposal.
While the Institute has not yet been approved by the university, Walsh says they recently received confirmation from UVA that the collective will be funded. Next semester, it will host guest speakers, an undergraduate forum for input on curricular changes, and a monthly conference to share research related to power, violence, and inequality. Graduate RAs will assist with the collective's organization and operations.
Changes At The Women's Center
Other areas on campus are considering changes, too. Take the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women's Center at UVA, which works toward gender justice on campus. The center offers counseling services, provides body positive education, coordinates internships, runs a volunteer corps, and manages opportunities in engaged scholarship where students can earn hands-on experience that complements their classwork.
Leigh Ann Carver, communications and development officer at the center, says it has gradually increased its services in recent years, but the Rolling Stone story “heightened publicity." In December 2014, UVA's Office of the Provost funded two new positions at the Women's Center: an education outreach and prevention specialist for the Gender Violence and Social Change program and a full-time counselor-in-residence experienced in trauma. There is also another new person on campus: Kelley Hodge, UVA's new full-time Title IX coordinator and a trial attorney who has served as the Safe Schools Advocate for the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency in Philadelphia for the past four years. While not a Women's Center employee, her relevance to the center's mission is apparent.
In June 2015, UVA president Teresa Sullivan's office issued a document entitled, "Next Steps to Address Sexual Assault Prevention and Response and to Effect Change in the University's Climate." In it, Sullivan listed actions the administration had thus far undertaken to respond to university rape culture.
Those actions reportedly include developing new student orientation and new resident assistant training; the creation of the Not on Our Grounds initiative, a campaign-based initiative that targets sexual violence; new UVA-specific training modules focused on sexual assault; partnering with Futures Without Violence and Harvard Law School and hosting a May 2015 meeting of sexual assault prevention experts to design a curriculum addressing assault prevention and response; participation in the national GreenDot program; and coming up with alcohol-free programming with the University Programs Council during the first several weeks of the fall semester to create weekend alternatives to Greek social activities.
University spokesperson Anthony P. de Bruyn tells Bustle in a statement that shortly after Thanksgiving break this year, the UVA President’s Ad Hoc Group on University Climate and Culture received word that various initiatives are in the works for the spring semester. Updates will be posted on the University Climate and Culture website. He adds that UVA "will continue to implement substantive reforms," noting that "the negative repercussions of this irresponsible journalism continue today."
One year ago, Rolling Stone made a monumental error — a failure at every stage of its editorial process, which culminated in a piece of faulty journalism that contributed to the narrative of those who stand against rape survivors.
But that error also contributed to the growing national conversation about campus rape. In Carver's Oct. 5 blog post for the Women's Center, she writes, “In the long run, the level of attention brought to the issue of sexual assault nationally and locally over the past couple of years is bound to be a good thing.”
Some women's rights groups agree. "I've been an activist for 25 years," says Kristen Houser, the chief public affairs officer at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Pennsylvania. "All the things we activists have been hoping for are finally actually happening. While the story didn't hold up to the standards of journalism, it still shone a light a something that needed to be addressed. The story highlighted a problem that people are finally paying attention to."
"So many universities really are reexamining policies, practices, how they're staffing Title IX office," she continues. "They're making it a top priority. We are all going to benefit from that."