How American University is handling fallout from crude e-mail incident

There is never an optimal time for a university to confront the disclosure of a string of e-mails, possibly originating from some of its own students, that refer to rape, assault and wild parties in crude and offensive language.

But late April is probably one of the worst times.

That’s because high school students across the country are pondering offers of college admission, and May 1 is their deadline to make a decision. The last thing colleges want is to leave the impression that their campus social life is dangerous or out of control.

Aware of this unfortunate timing, American University President Cornelius M. “Neil” Kerwin knows he has no choice but to deal with the e-mail incident that exploded on his campus last week. Kerwin announced Monday that AU is investigating possible student misconduct related to a string of foul e-mails that contain references to a social group called Epsilon Iota, which AU does not officially recognize.

Is he worried about damage to AU’s image at this moment of decision for high school seniors?

“You’ve got to realize any negative publicity at a time like this could affect the thinking of a few people,” Kerwin said Tuesday afternoon at the campus on Massachusetts Avenue NW.

But Kerwin said AU is a school with numerous strengths, attractive to a wide range of high-quality students. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in this university’s ability to tell that story,” he said.

With about 12,800 students, AU is a selective private university in a tranquil corner of Northwest Washington.

Many schools recently have been dealing with issues related to campus safety. Dartmouth College President Philip J. Hanlon last week vowed to lead an effort to end “extreme behavior,” including sexual assaults, dangerous drinking and parties with “racist and sexist undertones” at his New Hampshire campus. Amherst College has faced scrutiny about how it handles sexual assault complaints. A U.S. Naval Academy midshipman was found not guilty this year of sexual assault in a case that put a spotlight on how Annapolis handles allegations of sexual violence.

President Obama this year formed a White House task force to explore ways to prevent sexual assaults on campus.

Kerwin acknowledges that AU has become part of this conversation. He said in Monday’s statement that the e-mail incident raises “broader concerns” about student conduct and that AU will explore new measures to curtail “dangerous, damaging and illegal behaviors.”

“This is a university that doesn’t run away from problems,” he told The Washington Post. “We’re willing to face this and take it where it leads. . . . Why would we presume that we’re immune from what everybody from the White House on down says is an issue of national significance?”

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.
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