If you've been following the conversation in recent years about campus sexual assault, you might be surprised to hear that a University of Chicago student accused of sexual assault is suing the school, claiming that the school is “creating a gender biased, hostile environment against males.” As an alumnus of the University of Chicago, I know it surprised me.
As BuzzFeed reports, a male student identified in the lawsuit as John Doe filed in federal court, alleging in the lawsuit that the school has violated Title IX "by creating a gender biased, hostile environment against males, like John Doe, based in part on UC’s pattern and practice of investigating and disciplining male students who accept physical contact initiated by female students, retaliating against male students, and providing female students preferential treatment under its Title IX policies."
According to the complaint, John Doe was formally first accused of sexual assault in 2014 by a woman identified in the lawsuit as Jane Roe. The lawsuit alleges that after a university disciplinary panel ruled In John Doe's favor, that Jane Roe then began a "vendetta" against him, posting his name on Tumblr on a page dedicated to naming perpetrators of sexual assault at the university. He also alleges that the university improperly removed him from a physics lab he would have shared with Roe, even after the disciplinary panel ruled in his favor.
A friend of Jane Roe, who is identified in the lawsuit as Jane Doe, has also accused John Doe of assaulting her, an assault she alleges took place in December of 2013. Both women dated John Doe, according to the lawsuit.
John Doe claims in the lawsuit that Jane Doe also publicly accused him of rape, tweeting that he had assaulted her and "many" other students. These statements, his lawsuit contends, resulted in calls to boycott a campus play that John Doe, who studies Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS), was directing.
John Doe claims that the university overlooked the actions of both women, which he characterizes as “sexual harassment." He says the university is motivated by an "anti-male bias" and is seeking more than $175,000 in damages.
As an alumnus of the University of Chicago who graduated in 2013, these claims — of anti-male bias, and of the university being too proactive in protecting alleged assault victims — surprise me. The University of Chicago that I remember was not known for taking sexual assault seriously — quite the opposite, in fact.
During my time at UChicago, I was one of many students on campus who worked to reform the way the university addressed sexual assault. We had some notable successes, but overall, the institution was very resistant to change (although many individual faculty members and administrators were much more open to reforms).
In fact, the university was so ineffective when it came to addressing concerns about sexual assault on campus that in 2013, the Department of Education investigated the university for Title IX violations.
According to John Doe's lawsuit, the negative attention that this investigation and actions by student activists generated did in fact prompt the university to change their approach — in fact, he claims they swung too far in the opposite direction in their haste to change. He claims they now demonstrate "anti-male bias" that "was, at least in part, adopted to refute criticism within the student body and public press that UC was turning a blind eye to female complaints of sexual assault.”
So has the University of Chicago really changed that much in just a few short years? This is the same university that continues to have an uneasy and often hostile relationship with students who are vocal about progressive causes and the same university that made headlines just this week for its hard stance against "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings" — even though both safe spaces and trigger warnings are incredibly helpful for survivors of sexual assault.
Of course, it is possible the university has changed when it comes to its sexual assault policies. In fact, as someone who knows just how unfortunate many of their policies around sexual assault have been in the past, I very much hope they have changed.
As for John Doe's lawsuit, it's worth noting that he is not the first student to ever sue a university for similar allegations. In fact, just last year the student accused of raping Emma Sulkowicz sued Columbia for allowing her highly visible, year-long protest, which made national news. However, cases of this nature have overall been largely unsuccessful. Male students who allege the university made procedural mistakes in their case have had a lot of luck in court. But saying that the university didn't protect them from public allegations by female students hasn't been much of a winning argument thus far.
After all, just because someone has been found not guilty by a disciplinary panel — or even a court of law — that doesn't automatically mean they're innocent, and it doesn't mean that other people involved in the case are forbidden from saying otherwise. So, given the history of cases like this, it seems doubtful John Doe will succeed.
Then again, anything can change — perhaps even the ivy-covered institution that is the University of Chicago.