In an interview with The Washington Post last week, U-Va. president Teresa Sullivan spoke about the challenging series of events on campus during the past school year, including sophomore Hannah Graham’s death, the since-debunked Rolling Stone story about rape at U-Va., and the bloody arrest of a black student leader at the hands of state alcohol enforcement officers. Though the elite public university had almost nothing to do with any of the three events, its campus was thrust into the national spotlight for reasons other than the successes of its students in academia and beyond.
Sullivan spoke extensively about all three events, noting that the U-Va. community has shown incredible resilience and that the string of bad news did nothing to tarnish the university that Thomas Jefferson built as it heads towards it bicentennial. Here are expanded comments from Sullivan’s interview:
Hannah Graham’s disappearance
In mid September, Sullivan received word that a student was declared missing. Such a report is not all that rare, Sullivan said, but the disappearance would turn out to be far from routine.
“I will tell you that it’s actually not too uncommon to get that kind of notification,” Sullivan said. “A student goes away for the weekend and the roommate may not know it. But that wasn’t the case this time.”
Sullivan learned that a sophomore named Hannah Graham from Fairfax County had planned to meet with friends in the early morning hours of Sept. 13 but never showed. On the evening of Sunday Sept. 14, her friends contacted police, which started a search operation that would last weeks and end in tragedy.
Once video footage emerged that showed Graham in a part of town far from her apartment, Sullivan said, “that’s when I started feeling very apprehensive.”
Sullivan said that she met with Graham’s parents, John and Sue, several times.
“It was in the sense of being there for them,” Sullivan said. “There was no news I could give them that they didn’t already have. They wanted to talk about Hannah, and I wanted to listen. There was not much I could say other than I’m a mom too and that I feel for you.”
John Graham told The Post that “president Sullivan and other members of the University of Virginia administration and faculty were extremely supportive at the time of Hannah’s disappearance, and remain so.”
Graham’s body was found on an abandoned property about a dozen miles from campus in October, and a Charlottesville-area man, Jesse Matthew Jr., has been charged with capital murder in her death.
Rolling Stone article
Just weeks later, as the campus began to return to a sense of normalcy, pop culture magazine Rolling Stone published an article alleging that U-Va. had fostered a culture of rape at the prestigious public flagship university. The article began with allegations that a student had endured a brutal gang rape at a fraternity as part of an initiation ritual and that university officials had actively tried to sweep it under the rug.
“I was sick to my stomach,” Sullivan said of first seeing the allegations. “We had never heard this before. That was the really striking thing.”
Sullivan said that as soon as the administration began investigating the magazine’s claims, it became clear the article was flawed. The Charlottesville Police Department later determined university staff, including associate dean Nicole Eramo, acted swiftly to assist the alleged rape victim and that the allegations didn’t hold water.
[One of the Post stories that called the account into question: U-Va. students challenge Rolling Stone account of alleged sexual assault]
Sullivan said that Eramo “cares deeply about the students she works with and has always done the best to make them aware of what their options were. What she was criticized for in Rolling Stone is for presenting options that federal law requires her to offer.”
Sullivan said that student privacy laws prevented the administration from releasing information that could have quickly cleared the university of wrongdoing. In the meantime, demonstrators on campus called for the dissolution of the Greek system, and attacked the fraternity named in the story, Phi Kappa Psi.
“The Phi Psi house was attacked by a group of people who did a great deal of damage to it,” Sullivan said. “That no fraternity member was harmed was not because the mob was being careful.”
Sullivan said that she opted to extend a freeze on Greek activities — a pause initiated by the student-run Inter-Fraternity Council — to bring calm back to campus.
“It was clear to me that the level of hostility was extreme and it wasn’t just directed at one fraternity house, it was pretty general,” Sullivan said. “What I did was extend the suspension of social activities for another nine days [until the winter break] to give us all a chance to take a deep breath.”
The magazine later retracted the story and its editors have apologized to readers. Eramo has sued the magazine, seeking more than $7.5 million for defamation.
Martese Johnson’s arrest
In March, a black U-Va. student was bloodied during an arrest by white Alcohol Beverage Control police officers. The confrontation occurred amid heightened racial tensions nationwide and also renewed focus on the role of the ABC’s law enforcement branch.
“Any police officer can arrest a student drunk in public or a similar alcohol violation,” Sullivan said. “Only they can do the enforcement against businesses. I don’t want the businesses serving underage or intoxicated people.”
Sullivan said that studies have shown about half of U-Va. students already drink before they arrive on campus, and the school has responded by providing additional awareness training and expanded offerings of alternative social events that are fun and alcohol free.
“This is a problem that’s beginning in high schools and that’s actually where we need to begin addressing it,” Sullivan said. Sullivan said that alcohol abuse has declined at U-Va. in the past decade, “but it’s not as low as I want it to be. I don’t think we’re the only university facing the problem. I think a lot of us are.”
The university president — whose contract recently was extended through early 2018 — said that U-Va. student efforts — and their resilience — helped the community make it through the harrowing year.
“Students turned out weekend after weekend for search and recover efforts,” for Hannah Graham, Sullivan said. “They were shocked by the Rolling Stone story, but they pulled together and they thought hard and had many dialogues about sexual assault. They responded in a positive way instead of falling into a blue funk.”
She also noted that the arrest of the black student, Martese Johnson, led to “specific suggestions where we could improve racial harmony at the university.”
U-Va. Board of Visitors member Helen Dragas credited the students’ maturity as they dealt with a tumultuous year.
“In the face of even the most horrific of these events, they stepped up,” Dragas said. “Adversity didn’t build their character, but it certainly revealed it.”