No school sends more students to the University of Virginia than the one in Fairfax County named after the university’s founder. Sixty-five freshmen in Charlottesville this fall come from the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, one of the top magnet schools in the country.
Suddenly, some TJ seniors who had been strongly considering U-Va. are wondering about that choice, as recent allegations about a brutal gang rape at a fraternity there have caused turmoil, just weeks after U-Va. sophomore Hannah Graham was found dead after vanishing from a Charlottesville street. At the end of one of the toughest fall semesters ever for the university, parents are asking hard questions about campus safety.
“It’s causing some students to think twice about U-Va.,” Sean P. Burke, a college counselor at the prestigious public high school, said, after talking with several in recent days.
The public flagship university, with about 23,000 students, retains its stellar academic reputation. “Everyone agrees that U-Va. is a fantastic school,” Burke said. But he warned that university officials “are going to have to answer the questions of parents and well-educated students” who are thinking about going there.
On Monday, U-Va. officials continued to address a crisis that has placed the school at the epicenter of a national debate on campus sexual assault, following a Rolling Stone article that described a “culture of hidden sexual violence” and lackluster responses from the school’s administration.
U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan abruptly canceled a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington, choosing instead to speak with the university community in Charlottesville.
“We have a problem, and we are going to get after it,” Sullivan said in a speech to a small group of students that was later posted on the U-Va. Web site. “The story has raised a number of questions in my mind, and I will make it my highest priority in the coming months to learn the answers. . . .
“And let me say emphatically that how we answer these questions is not about protecting the university’s reputation – it is about doing the right thing, and the reputation I care about the most is not being afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead.”
The school’s governing Board of Visitors released a statement before Thanksgiving that condemned sexual assault and pledged to pursue the facts behind the magazine article. “We will not end our work until we restore the trust in this great institution,” the board said.
The Rolling Stone article appeared after the Nov. 1 deadline for early applications and before the Jan. 1 deadline for the regular cycle, so it is not yet clear what effect it will have on prospective students. Those offered admission will have until May 1 to decide whether to enroll.
In the last recruiting cycle, U-Va. offered admission to 29 percent of about 31,000 applicants. It is one of the most selective public universities in the country and is consistently one of the highest-rated.
Robyn Lady, chief of counseling at Chantilly High School, said she does not think demand for U-Va. will drop. “I think good prevails over evil. I believe that wholeheartedly,” she said. “U-Va. is at a crossroads. They’ve got to get through this, and they’ll come out stronger.”
Steven Roy Goodman, a college admission counselor in the District, said the gang-rape allegation continues what has been a tumultuous period for the university in recent years, starting with the murder of student Yeardley Love in 2010. “The news just keeps pouring out,” he said, “and the news isn’t good.”
Applicants, understandably, do not want to say anything publicly that would harm their chances of getting in. One public sounding board some use is the U-Va. admissions blog, called Notes from Peabody. It is curated by a U-Va. admissions officer known as Dean J.
Angst and wrath leapt out from comments on the blog after the Rolling Stone article.
“My daughter, a high school junior, was horrified and scared by the article, as were many classmates, and I can’t say it’s an overreaction,” wrote NoVaDad. “Her school usually sends over 50 kids year to UVA, but it will be interesting to see how many girls go elsewhere in the wake of this due to parental or student safety concerns.”
Dean J herself wrote that the article left her wavering between feelings of anger and devastation. “The stories are sickening and horrific, but I am thankful that sexual assault survivors are getting support from the entire community right now,” she wrote. “Changes in policies (and perhaps legislation) are on the horizon as a result of their bravery.”
Jeannine C. Lalonde, a senior assistant dean of admission, has said previously that she is the blogger. Lalonde did not respond to messages seeking comment.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about the potential impact on applications at this point,” U-Va.’s dean of admission, Gregory W. Roberts, wrote in an e-mail. “Our hearts and minds are focused on our students right now.”
Other major universities have faced and overcome crises.
Duke University remained in high demand after a 2006 scandal in which lacrosse team members were charged with raping a stripper at a party — and were later exonerated after authorities concluded they were falsely accused.
Virginia Tech remains an esteemed destination seven years after a student gunman shot and killed 32 people on the Blacksburg campus before killing himself. Larry Hincker, a Virginia Tech spokesman, said the university carefully tracked how prospective students felt about campus safety after the April 2007 shootings. The share of admitted students who decided that spring to attend Virginia Tech followed normal patterns.
“We were on pins and needles, to be honest,” he said, adding that universities must move swiftly to address safety questions whenever they emerge. “Any university that ignores it is ignoring it to its peril.”
Another parallel for U-Va. can be seen in the experiences of Dartmouth College after a 2012 Rolling Stone article that recounted fraternity hazing abuses. That piece, as well as reports of sexual assault, dangerous drinking and other problems on campus, took a toll. Dartmouth President Philip J. Hanlon pointed out in a speech in April that applications to the Ivy League school had tumbled 14 percent. He pledged to end “extreme behavior” at the school.
Now it appears Sullivan is embarked on a similar effort. “If there is a subculture that hurts any U-Va. students or exploits any of our fellow Wahoos, then we must find out where it hides,” Sullivan said Monday, “and root it out.”