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One college president: on campus rape, leadership and a new film

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Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, doesn’t mince words. She is frequently quotable on college affordability, prevention of campus sexual assault and providing access and education to disadvantaged students. She has been president of the Catholic women’s school in Northeast Washington since 1989. She was interviewed for a documentary on campus sex assaults called “The Hunting Ground” and was quoted in it. The film portrays many colleges and college presidents in an unflattering light. It concludes with a note indicating that the presidents of several prominent schools declined to be interviewed. Here are McGuire’s thoughts after viewing the film.

By Patricia McGuire

Rape is a horrific crime that shatters victims, leaving them grasping to gather the shards of dignity, security and inner peace they once had in that time before the crime.  Rape on a college campus may be no different, but the shock may be measurably worse because of the anticipation of a more enlightened life a student might expect to enjoy in the supposedly civilized groves of academe. No young person heads off to college expecting to find those groves inhabited by monsters.

“The Hunting Ground” is a new film that, in its opening montage, aptly captures the joy of young women receiving the news of their acceptance into college. Then, in a sharp mood shift, the film depicts the savage aftermath of campus rape and sexual assault through haunting interviews with survivors. The film opened at Sundance in January to critical acclaim, and is now opening in theaters around the country.

No college president can possibly watch this film without feeling a great sense of anger along with the imperative to take action to stop the violence.  What’s the point of our work if we cannot protect the lives and well-being of our students from this most primitive form of savagery?  The rapes depicted in the film are committed not by strangers but by other students, sometimes the most prominent students on campus — football stars and frat brothers.

Unfortunately, many college presidents are likely to watch this film with a great sense of anger, but not for the right reasons.  College presidents appearing in this film come off as self-serving buffoons, venal protectors of traditions in fraternities and football teams, panderers more concerned about donations than doing what’s right.

While some college presidents may be exactly that — and I certainly will not defend those who are — the filmmakers (director Kirby Dick, producer Amy Ziering) have overplayed their hand in the portrayal of college leaders. In doing so, they will alienate precisely the college presidents who need to step up and take clear and unequivocal action to stop campus assault. Because the film rather obtusely refuses to concede even a small dose of balance on this topic, too many presidents are likely to dismiss the film as unduly biased rather than pay attention to its message. This is a lost opportunity to engage an audience that is central to ending the campus rape crisis, namely, presidents and boards.

Contrary to the caricature of the greedy, obtuse presidents portrayed in the film, some presidents actually are quite serious about taking action to stop sexual assault and to protect students on campus. I know because I am one of them. In fact, I take this issue so seriously that I wrote about it in an opinion piece in the Huffington Post that specifically called out another president by name and called on all presidents to take action. Based on that piece, Ms. Ziering invited me to New York to give an interview for “The Hunting Ground.” I went willingly, at my own expense, and gave what I felt was a substantial interview that pulled no punches. I am no apologist for college presidents who do nothing on this issue.

Nevertheless, I was surprised and disappointed when, after the film was released at Sundance, reports circulated quoting the filmmakers as saying that no college presidents agreed to be interviewed for the film. I learned that Amherst President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin had given an interview, but none of hers appeared in the film. I contacted Ms. Ziering, who assured me that some of my interview was in the film. Indeed, while most of my interview wound up on the cutting room floor, a small snippet — about 8 seconds — is in the film, an out-of-context quote by me saying that college presidents are afraid of alienating alumni and donors. True so far as it goes, but not an accurate representation of my actual position on the central issue of the responsibility of college presidents to take aggressive and effective action on sexual assaults.

Sure, it’s very important to call out those college presidents who stand idly by doing nothing while rapists get away with their crimes on campus. Shame on them! I understand why these filmmakers wanted to dramatize the fact that the presidents of schools with notorious campus sexual assault cases refused to be interviewed. My school, Trinity in Washington, has no such cases, so perhaps my position carries no film-worthy drama. My students, largely low-income women of color from the city and nearby suburbs, suffer domestic violence and sexual assault in their homes and neighborhoods, but such daily suffering among women in the city does not seem to merit the hype and klieg lights.

I applaud the young women who had the courage to tell their stories in “The Hunting Ground.” I certainly support them and their efforts to change campus culture and policies. I will continue to work for such change as best I can. I wish the filmmakers had understood that for such change to become reality, campus leaders must be part of the solution, and many of us do advocate more aggressive action among our peers. When the screens go dark and the theaters empty out, we are still the ones left with the responsibility to stop the crimes. By marginalizing those of us willing to speak out and demonizing the rest, the film is more likely to block progress rather than foster effective solutions to the campus rape crisis.