Commentary: When academics play 'police'
If one believes even a significant fraction of the horror stories in the national news media, beastly male behavior has become almost epidemic on American college campuses. Tales of drunken sexual assaults and worse multiply from sea to shining sea.
Even the Obama administration is getting in on the act. Based upon the dubious claim that one in five college women is a victim of sexual assault — if people really believed that, even “highly selective” schools couldn’t keep their dorms filled — there’s now a “White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.”
Colleges are being warned to tighten up their procedures or face the consequences of violating women’s civil rights. I fear that what this basically involves is more pointless committee work for professors ill-suited to conduct quasi-criminal investigations to begin with.
The struggle against what feminists call “rape culture” has become a defining theme on the left. Washington Post columnist George Will recently made himself a campus pariah by arguing that when progressives “make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.”
If the specific case that Will wrote about — a Swarthmore student who got into bed with a former “hookup” partner, tired of fending off his advances, gave in so she could sleep, and then filed rape charges six months later — certainly justified skepticism, his sneering tone offended many.
The young woman subsequently appeared on CNN, where she spoke melodramatically of herself as a “survivor.”
Meanwhile, Philadelphia magazine reports, little Swarthmore — its 1,500-member student body filled with Honor Society grads — experienced a sharp upsurge in sexual assault reports, from 11 in 2012 to 91 in 2013. It’s unlikely that student behavior changed so dramatically over one year.
Clearly something else did.
A far more troubling incident was recently reported in exhaustive detail by Walt Bogdanich in The New York Times. The saga of Anna, an 18-year-old freshman at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York, who has gone public about her alleged rape by several football players, can’t help but make one wonder if academic institutions can be trusted to investigate serious felonies at all.
No brief summary can communicate the extreme awfulness of Anna’s experience. Suffice it to say that within two weeks of matriculating at the college, she and a group of friends went to a post-football game fraternity party, where they warmed up for the festivities by drinking rum shots in Gatorade. The cop who drove Anna back to her dorm the next morning had to pull over four times to let her vomit in the road.
Anna danced provocatively with a football jock she’d met, and then, ignoring her friend’s warnings, accompanied him upstairs to a bedroom. What happened next is hotly disputed. At one point, Anna texted a friend that there were 10 guys there trying to “hook up” with her, and that she was scared. She later told an investigating committee that she’d exaggerated to get attention. Friends set out to rescue Anna.
“We need to find her ASAP,” one texted. “She is so drunk.”
Two football players later claimed she’d pulled down their pants and performed oral sex on them. Anna’s friends eventually found her in a campus dance hall called the Barn, where one allegedly saw her being assaulted on a pool table while other students laughed and took photos. He thought she looked scared.
I warned you it was awful.
To this day, Anna remembers nothing about the Barn or the pool table. But en route to the hospital she started to remember three football players raping her in the frat house. A physical examination showed evidence of blunt-force trauma from rough sex. It also found semen in several locations.
Instead of filing criminal charges, Anna filed a complaint with the college.
As my friend Craig Barnes commented in an online colloquy, “I’ve never understood how a felony offense can be investigated by anyone other than police. Can anyone explain that to me? Would an on-campus murder be investigated by the university?”
Good question. Bogdanich’s account of the campus disciplinary hearing — somebody leaked the transcript — reads like a Monty Python script. Two of three panelists neglected to examine the physical evidence. Absurd questions and pointless digressions occurred throughout.
Two things you can count on with any academic committee: There are no set procedures and nobody’s in charge.
In the end, they exonerated the jocks. Don’t they always?
Cops and prosecutors too often come to unsatisfactory conclusions, if only because — as in Anna’s case — rape charges are notoriously hard to prove. Imagine the poor kid under cross-examination trying to convince a jury that her memories weren’t drunken nightmares.
The Times account itself has several obvious holes. Where did the student photos go? Were there no DNA samples?
Obviously, neither trial by newspaper nor faculty committee will suffice. Nor can any White House Task Force remedy the heedless barbarism this dreary tale illustrates.