The University of Virginia waged an intense fight over the summer to influence the conclusions of a federal investigation into sexual violence at the school, newly obtained documents show, while Virginia’s governor personally pressed the nation’s top education official to ensure that the elite public flagship would not be unfairly tarnished.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) urged U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to give U-Va. a chance to review the findings of the four-year investigation of the school’s record on sexual assault before they were made public, saying he feared that U-Va. was being denied “very basic requirements of due process.”
McAuliffe also expressed concern about what he viewed as an “adversarial” posture from the investigative agency — the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights — toward U-Va. The governor said he preferred “constructive and cooperative” approaches to reform.
“I respectfully urge you to act in order to guarantee that the very important work of OCR at the University of Virginia is not undermined by any unfair or unjust process,” McAuliffe wrote Duncan on Aug. 14.
Soon afterward, Sens. Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine, both Virginia Democrats, also reinforced the plea to Duncan, one of the longest-serving members of President Obama’s Cabinet.
“The governor’s letter raises serious procedural questions that could affect the accuracy of the investigation,” the senators wrote to Duncan on Aug. 25. “We urge you to give his concerns careful consideration.”
The politicians’ intervention, in correspondence The Washington Post obtained from the federal agency, came as top U-Va. officials were raising concerns about the direction of an investigation with the potential to bruise the university’s public image. The prestigious university had just endured a difficult year, with the high-profile slaying of sophomore Hannah Graham, a Rolling Stone article that accused the school of indifference to sexual assault and the bloody arrest of a black student outside a bar.
A senior Education Department official said pushback from schools and their allies during an investigation is not unusual. Catherine E. Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, told The Post that U-Va. was treated fairly and that the investigation’s findings were not softened.
“The university was enormously displeased with what our findings were and very much hoped we would change them,” Lhamon said. “We did not.”
On Sept. 21, OCR made public a report finding that U-Va. violated federal rules on the handling of sexual-violence issues several times in recent years, failing to provide “prompt and equitable” responses to allegations of sexual assault and allowing a “hostile environment” to exist at some points in time for affected students.
The report also faulted U-Va. in some instances as not promptly investigating information in cases that involved campus fraternities, and it asserted that the 23,000-student university failed to investigate or determine what happened in 21 instances of alleged sexual assault from 2008 to 2012.
What remains unclear is exactly how the content was revised in the weeks before the final, 26-page report was released. The department provided a 39-page version to U-Va. on Aug. 31 but withdrew it a few days later after the university said it was riddled with inaccuracies. A source familiar with the two versions said the one that was made public focused on events in a narrower time frame, listing fewer supporting examples.
The Post requested OCR’s recent communications to U-Va. under the Freedom of Information Act, but the university has declined to release the Aug. 31 letter.
U-Va. cited exemptions in state law that shield “attorney work product” and presidential “working papers and correspondence” as it withheld certain documents. A similar request for records remains pending with the U.S. Education Department.
OCR has opened dozens of civil rights investigations in recent years related to sexual violence at colleges. Its expansive use of enforcement power under the 1972 law called Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education programs, is a crucial element in Obama’s campaign to stop campus sexual assault.
As of last month, 146 colleges and universities nationwide were under scrutiny.
Typically, little is revealed publicly about OCR investigations, aside from their official launch and when findings and resolution agreements are released. Documents that The Post obtained from U-Va. and the department provide a rare glimpse of the frictions in the end game of such an investigation.
Begun in June 2011, the U-Va. probe was called a “compliance review.” OCR initiates these investigations when it spots a significant issue. Others are triggered when individual students file complaints.
The U-Va. investigation overlapped with an episode that rocked Charlottesville: an article in Rolling Stone magazine about an alleged gang rape of a U-Va. student at a fraternity house in September 2012.
The bombshell, published in November 2014, depicted U-Va. as indifferent to the plight of sexual-violence victims, a portrayal the university vehemently disputed.
After The Post exposed serious inconsistencies in the account and Charlottesville police concluded that there was no evidence to substantiate the rape allegation, the magazine retracted the article. But the public relations damage was done.
State and university officials were eager to ensure that the OCR report would not subject U-Va. again to unjust criticism.
On May 20, OCR sent U-Va. a draft resolution agreement to address concerns that the investigation uncovered. Separate from a letter of findings, a resolution agreement commits a school to overhaul policies, procedures and training, along with other measures, in order to reduce sexual violence and harassment and improve the response to future cases.
U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan, in office since 2010, had repeatedly indicated a desire to update campus safety policies and invest in staff and student training. But before signing the resolution agreement, Sullivan and other U-Va. leaders were keen to know what the findings would be.
Their worries grew after a meeting with OCR on Aug. 3. Two days later, the leader of the U-Va. Board of Visitors asked OCR officials to reconsider the direction in which the case appeared to be headed.
“I certainly hope that you will take the proverbial one step back and reevaluate our discussion,” board Rector William H. Goodwin Jr. wrote in an e-mail to the federal agency. “We really would like to resolve our issues, but do not believe we can agree that U-Va. has been a hostile environment.”
Goodwin, a Richmond businessman, declined to comment.
“Hostile environment,” a key term in Title IX enforcement, refers to situations in which sexual harassment — including sexual violence — hinders or prevents participation in an educational program.
For U-Va., a broad finding of a hostile environment on campus would raise uncomfortable echoes of sweeping generalizations about the school’s culture made in the discredited Rolling Stone article. On Aug. 14, McAuliffe raised the Rolling Stone issue in his three-page letter to Duncan.
“I would be remiss not to mention the importance to me and all citizens of the Commonwealth that the University of Virginia be treated fairly after it was so unfairly attacked in the November 2014 Rolling Stone article,” McAuliffe wrote. The governor voiced concern that information gathered before the story was retracted “could have been influenced by the atmosphere unfairly created on campus by that false article.”
McAuliffe has been outspoken on the need to combat sexual violence at colleges, and last year he established a state task force to propose reforms, saying he wanted Virginia to be out front on the issue.
On Aug. 31, OCR sent U-Va. the 39-page “letter of findings.” It caused great dismay in Charlottesville, and university officials voiced concern about the investigation the next day with state legislators. On Sept. 2, Sullivan wrote to the Education Department, saying that the letter was the first time the school had learned specifics despite repeated requests for information.
“I am profoundly disappointed that the letter is replete with factual errors,” Sullivan wrote. “I respectfully request that OCR refrain from publicly releasing its erroneous letter of findings until OCR has an opportunity to consider the university’s forthcoming response.”
That response, which U-Va. declined to release, appeared to have the desired effect.
On Sept. 4, Lhamon wrote Sullivan that OCR was withdrawing the findings and requesting additional information.
Lhamon, in a telephone interview, said she met with Sullivan and other university officials in her office in Washington on Sept. 16 to discuss a resolution. Five days later, an agreement and revised letter of findings were released.
Several references to “hostile environment” remained.
OCR concluded that “a basis for a hostile environment existed for affected students at the university and that the university failed to eliminate a hostile environment and take steps to prevent its recurrence during academic years 2008-2009 through 2011-2012.”
Asked about U-Va.’s battle with OCR, university spokesman Anthony P. de Bruyn said: “Both staffs worked very hard over a period of several months to arrive at an amicable resolution that we believe is in the best interest of both the university community and OCR.”
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said the governor “believes the final process resulted in a fair investigation and a report that identifies a real need for changes in the university’s procedures, but also good progress on bringing those changes into effect.”
Lhamon said she, too, was pleased with the result.
“The most important lodestar for me is that our process is fair and that we protect students,” she said. “We were able to achieve both here.”
On Sept. 30, the U-Va. board’s vice rector, Frank M. “Rusty” Conner III, sent Lhamon a note of gratitude.
“I want to thank you for interceding in our recent compliance matter and demonstrating a willingness to listen, consider our arguments and make adjustments,” Conner wrote in an e-mail. “It was a very difficult process for us and for your staff and I would be happy to reflect upon it with you at an appropriate time so that both of our institutions may benefit.”
Jenna Portnoy and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.