Civil Liberties

The UVA Rapists Should Not Have Been Expelled

Treating rape as akin to plagiarism trivializes violence against women.


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It's difficult to imagine a more callous, wholly inadequate response to a culture of seemingly rampant sexual assault at the University of Virginia (UVA) than the one its administrators practiced year after year, according to a horrifying account finally publicized by Rolling Stone last week. But that's precisely what happens when an entity equipped only to deal with academic misbehavior is instead pushed to do something about sexual assault: it finds itself putting the university's brand name first and the victims second.

The lesson of the UVA assault, then, is that efforts undertaken by state governments and federal agencies to beef up university adjudication of sex crimes—including the increasing popular "yes means yes" bills—are doomed to failure. Students will never see justice so long as colleges, rather than the police, are expected to intervene in rape cases.

Rolling Stone's expose, which quickly went viral, details the unbelievable ordeal of an 18-year-old freshman, "Jackie," in the fall of 2012. The crime took place at Phi Kappa Psi, where Jackie was attending her first fraternity party with a date, a Phi Psi junior, who eventually lured her to an upstairs bedroom. Jackie then endured three hours of agonizing violence at the hands of seven students, who held her down while they raped her. One male, whom she recognized, brutalized her with a beer can instead. Hours later she fled the frat house battered and bloody.

Little could have been worse than that ordeal. But the quiet indifference of the people in whom Jackie confided came close. Her friends dissuaded her from going to the hospital or calling the police. Jackie recalled one saying, "She's gonna be the girl who cried 'rape,' and we'll never be allowed into any frat party again," as if the potential loss of social status was the real crime here.

Worse still, university administrators did nothing to correct the notion that keeping quiet was the best policy. A few months later, after finally working up the courage to go to the administration, Jackie told Nicole Eramo, head of UVA's Sexual Misconduct Board, about her assault. Eramo gave her four options: file a police report, file a formal complaint with the university, file an "informal" complaint, or do nothing. The informal complaint process would have obligated the accused to face Jackie in Eramo's presence, and the administrator would have suggested some kind of resolution. The formal complaint process offers the possibility of an academic punishment, like suspension or expulsion. Eramo didn't express a preference for one option or the other; Jackie ultimately did nothing, and that was just fine from the university's perspective.

Only after Rolling Stone publicized Jackie's story—including the fact that multiple other rape accusations went unreported, including at least two more accusations of gang rape at Phi Psi—did UVA express any interest in doing something.

People are outraged, and they should be. It's a travesty that such a terrible culture of sexual violence endures at perhaps the quintessential American public university, founded by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. 

Yet much of that outrage is misdirected. One of the most common reactions to the Rolling Stone story seems to be this curious question: why weren't the rapists expelled? Indeed, much of the broader coverage has focused on the fact that no student has ever been expelled for rape at UVA. BuzzFeed's report on the issue led with the headline, "You Can Admit to Raping Someone at UVA and Not Be Expelled." Jezebel, zoning in on Eramo's assertion that even if a rapist admitted guilt during an informal resolution he wouldn't be expelled, wrote: "UVA Dean Admits School Doesn't Expel People Who Have Admitted to Rape." Many news outlets ran similar headlines.

The mother of a UVA student who reported her rape summarized this position thusly: "In what world do you get kicked out for cheating, but if you rape someone, you can stay?"

That sentiment makes for a great outrage quote, but it's entirely wrong. Cheating and raping are not related things. The former is in academic infraction deserving an academic punishment, like expulsion; the latter is a violent crime deserving a rigorous police investigation. Students who are confessed rapists shouldn't be expelled, they should be put in jail.

Merely ejecting rapists from a campus community would be a terrible approach. Rapists, experts tell us, are serial predators. They are public health hazards. Shuffling them from community to community, rather than confronting their misdeeds in a criminal setting, would allow them to claim additional victims. Do the bureaucrats at the Department of Education—who are now mandating that universities at least consider expelling rapists—really sleep any better at night with the knowledge that they have made it more difficult for violent criminals to earn degrees?

Treating rape as akin to plagiarism, or copying off someone else's test, trivializes violence against women. What UVA administrators did, in listening to students' accusations and failing to report them to police time and time again, is worse than trivializing: it's an outright cover-up. Eramo reportedly justified UVA's policy of burying rape accusations when she told Jackie, "Nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school." That stunning moment of honesty should disabuse everyone of the notion that sexual assault adjudication belongs in the hands of university administrators.

Indeed, when colleges do intervene in rape cases, the result is fewer freedoms for everyone, but still no justice. Just look at UVA's latest response to the controversy: administrators, eager to look like they are doing something, have now suspended all campus fraternity activities. But that's legally dubious—students enjoy broad First Amendment protections and have the constitutional right to join clubs and plan activities. Similarly, when universities do take formal disciplinary actions against accused rapists, they typically violate those students' due process rights by denying them adequate representation and convicting them under tragically low evidence standards. There is no justice here: Innocent students have their rights violated and their lives ruined, while actual rapists get off far too lightly—they don't go to jail.

If the government and the colleges were truly interested in addressing the campus rape epidemic, there is one big thing they could do: work together to come up with a saner drinking age. Older students, who enjoy legal access to booze, are the distributors of alcohol on campus; underage students who want to drink have to hit the frats and house-party scenes and accept mystery drinks from people they don't know. One way to curb the abuses of fraternity parties and campus binge-drinking culture is to give 18-year-olds legal access to bars, something a repeal of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act would accomplish.

Absent that proactive step, the best way to confront campus rape is to treat the issue with the seriousness it deserves and make violent crime the business of the normal criminal justice system. UVA's cowardly, PR-wary cover-up of its own rape problem should serve as a lesson to anyone who thinks otherwise.