CHARLOTTESVILLE — After one of its most tumultuous fall terms in memory, the University of Virginia is plunging ahead with plans to beef up campus safety, rein in alcohol abuse, reform its fraternity culture and prevent sexual assault.
U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said Tuesday that the university plans to hire more counselors to help students deal with, among other issues, grief after the death of classmate Hannah Graham and trauma they may be feeling about sexual assault. It plans to revise its written agreements with fraternal organizations to ensure that safety becomes a high priority.
In the spring term, the university plans to deploy uniformed “ambassadors” around and near the campus to help escort students home or provide other help on weekends when needed, an idea taken from the University of Pennsylvania. And it plans to team with Charlottesville police to open a substation near the hangout area known as the Corner.
“When you have more officers and more eyes and ears there, it can help with all kinds of difficult situations,” Sullivan said.
Those were some of the action items Sullivan listed in a one-hour interview with The Washington Post, her most extensive comments since Rolling Stone magazine published an article Nov. 19 that depicted an alleged gang rape at a fraternity house not far from her office in Madison Hall and accused the university of indifferent responses to the plight of sexual violence victims. The article in recent days has unraveled as doubts have been raised about key elements in the rape allegation, and Rolling Stone has apologized for “discrepancies” in the account.
Sullivan said she wants to make clear that this burst of activity on campus is not only in response to a magazine article.
“I want to make the point that we have been concerned about these issues of sexual assault and alcohol use for a long time,” Sullivan said. “It’s not just all about the Rolling Stone story. That appeared and made everybody kind of look around, and it heightened the awareness of the issue, but it was an issue we were already concerned about.”
Every year, Sullivan said, she raises concerns with fraternities about hazing. This year, before Rolling Stone’s article went online, Sullivan said, she started talking with fraternities about preventing sexual violence. One of three she visited, she said, was Phi Kappa Psi. That fraternity’s house was the scene of the alleged rape that Rolling Stone now says it is unsure about. The fraternity has issued a detailed rebuttal of the allegations.
Sullivan said that during her Oct. 5 visit to the chapter, she mentioned the upcoming Rolling Stone article to its members. But she said her message was the same that she delivered to other fraternities: “We need to make our houses as safe as possible.”
Sullivan, 65, has been president of the university since August 2010 and is under contract to serve through July 2016. She survived an attempted ouster in June 2012, after the university rallied around her during a conflict with leaders of the governing Board of Visitors that drew national attention. Now she is again under scrutiny.
Under the terms of her contract, Sullivan is scheduled to begin discussions with the board in January about whether she will seek an extension. She declined to reveal her plans. “You can say I am committed to doing the job, and I do have a job I think is not yet finished,” she said.
In the interview, Sullivan sought to make the case that the university has been proactive about campus safety while acknowledging there may be flaws in policy and procedure that need to be fixed. Many details of next steps remain to be determined.
She has named an “Ad Hoc Group on University Climate and Culture,” which includes parents, students, faculty, alumni and governing board members. It met for the first time Friday. The governing board also plans to meet on safety issues Dec. 19. An independent counsel also will advise the board on sexual violence issues.
“This is a marathon and not a sprint,” Sullivan said. “There are many things we want to examine.”
On sexual assault, Sullivan said she wants to review how the university responds to incidents. “In general, what we want is a culture of reporting,” she said. “We want students to feel free to come forward.”
Sullivan declined to discuss the gang rape allegations, citing an ongoing police investigation. But she said she is concerned about Jackie, the student who was the article’s main subject. The Post, which has interviewed Jackie, is not disclosing her last name because it generally does not identify those who report they are a victim of a sexual assault unless they wish to be named.
“It’s safe to say that every day I have reached out to the student affairs staff to say, ‘[Have] we got people who are in touch with Jackie?’ Because I want to be sure that she knows that we care about her.” Sullivan said the first time she saw Jackie’s name in connection with the rape allegation at the heart of the Rolling Stone account was when she read the article.
Sullivan said the university has cooperated fully with a federal investigation into its response to sexual violence issues that began in June 2011. “We’ve taken the compliance review very seriously,” she said.
Sullivan said she has been struck in recent weeks by stories of rape and sexual assault suffered by others, including faculty and staff. “They’re survivors, and in some cases, they’ll say it happened 40 years ago,” she said. “But they will stand up and talk about it. We’re seeing the survivor community find one another and come together in mutual support.”
On Greek life, Sullivan said she is working “collaboratively” with fraternity leaders. “The students have brought forward some great ideas,” she said. But she said a suspension of social activities would remain in place until Jan. 9.
On alcohol, Sullivan said she is sympathetic to those who want a crackdown on underage drinking. But she said she worries about unintended consequences.
“I don’t want students to be so afraid of police that they won’t call police when they’ve got a friend who’s in trouble,” Sullivan said. “But I think respect for the law is also an important thing for us to instill in our young people.”
Asked about the toll taken on U-Va.’s image in the past few months, Sullivan declined to venture a guess on the effect of this fall’s events on the school’s reputation.
The damage, she said, “has to be judged by other people. I don’t think I’m the right person to do that.” She said the only reputation she wants is “that we fearlessly follow the truth, wherever it leads.”