UVA President Teresa Sullivan's Plan For Fighting Sexual Assault Somewhat Misses the Point
It looks like more changes are in store for the University of Virginia campus as the school continues to grapple with the issue of sexual assault following a Rolling Stone exposé about a horrific gang rape on campus. In an interview with TIME , UVA president Teresa Sullivan says that the school is taking steps to make campus culture safer. And she does seem to be taking things seriously, though she is perhaps not as focused on certain aspects as one might like.
Immediately following the Rolling Stone story, the school suspended all of their fraternities. Now, Sullivan tells TIME, they are floating several ideas for what changes would make fraternities safer, including outlawing all alcohol besides beer and requiring all bedrooms to remain locked during parties at fraternity houses. The difficulty, of course, is that fraternities operate off-campus and are largely self-regulated. However, Sullivan wants to make sure that their government agreement “has more teeth in it.”
However, in order for the university to actually have the power to increase their control over the fraternities, their Fraternal Organization Agreement with the university, the agreement under which the organizations receive university recognition, would have to be updated. Frat houses are "essentially no different from privately owned homes."
But Sullivan is also looking to change campus culture in ways that will give fraternities less power over the social scene to begin with.
"It is important for us to think about alternative forms of entertainment," Sullivan explained to TIME. "We are talking to students and faculty about more ways to encourage a greater variety of student life that is not dominated by one group."
All of which sounds like important steps. Fraternities do need to be safer, and monopolies in general are only fun if you're talking about the board game.
However, it's worth noting that sexual assault on campus is a hard thing to tackle, and can't be solved just by trying to keep people away from dangerous places or trying to get rid of some of the most obvious dangers at particular parties. The unfortunate truth is that alcohol and parties and limited social options aren't what cause rape; rape would be a lot easier to fight if it were. Rape happens because certain people — rapists — think they have a right to harm other human beings, and believe that they can get away with it.
Trying to make fraternity houses safer and trying to give students options beyond frat parties will hopefully keep more students safe. But the thing that might go the furthest towards keeping students safe — beyond teaching people not to rape — would be ensuring that students who come forward to report assault are taken seriously, and that offenders are given harsh punishments. Which Sullivan does touch on in her TIME interview. “We are very interested in changing the culture so that people are more free to come forward and don’t pay a high social cost,” she said.
However, the fact that in the TIME piece she appears more focused on changing campus rather than making changes within the administration is somewhat worrying, especially after the Rolling Stone allegations that the university has mishandled rape cases.
Rape doesn't just happen at frat parties. Rape can happen anywhere that the need for consent is not respected. And that means that the university will need to do more than reform campus culture; they will need to reform themselves. Here's hoping that, behind the scenes, Sullivan is just as focused — if not more so — on making sure any woman who comes forward will be taken seriously and treated respectfully. Because only once the university has sent the message that this type of crime — what some apparently consider "normal" behavior — will not be tolerated, will they be making a true difference.
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