A student at the University of Virginia was surprised by the way the university administration handled a controversial issue recently. After a four-year federal investigation into the way the university’s administration deals with complaints of sexual assault, Nora Neus read the results  of that investigation quite differently than the way the university chose to present them. 

[Read the Office for Civil Rights letter to the University of Virginia.]

Neus, a master of public policy student and a journalist who has worked for Anderson Cooper at CNN and U-Va.’s student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, offers her opinion here. 

By Nora Neus 

Nora Neus (Photo by Jack Looney) Nora Neus (Jack Looney)

Two weeks ago, I received an all-student e-mail from the University of Virginia public relations office on behalf of President Teresa Sullivan. We get a lot of these, most often telling us to be careful with drinking before a night football game, or with unfortunate frequency, announcing the death of a fellow classmate.

I skimmed this one quickly, but it didn’t seem to be much more than yet another e-mail extolling the progress U-Va. had made in handling the response to sexual assault on campus.

Apparently the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) had finished an investigation and while there were some past issues, the current conduct was “exemplary.”

I deleted the message.

But a few hours later, I noticed a headline in The Washington Post: “Dept. of Education: U-Va. violated federal rules for responding to sexual violence.” At first, I thought they were talking about a different report.

The university’s e-mail noted prominently that, “In their findings, [the Department of Education] noted that we provided consistent support and comfort to survivors, and also found our new Policy on Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment and Other Forms of Interpersonal Violence to be ‘exemplary’ and fully in compliance with Title IX.”

I tried to find the full report online to figure out what was going on. The e-mail from U-Va. included five hyperlinked resources. One directed to an article published in the University-run publication “UVa Today,” written by a paid “University Spokesperson,” with the headline, “U.Va. Moves Forward with Sexual Assault and Safety Enhancements Following Conclusion of OCR Compliance Review.”

But there was no link to the actual report.

I gave up on trying to navigate the complicated Department of Education Web site after half an hour with no luck, and finally found the report embedded in the Post article.

When I finally opened the report’s “Letter of Findings,” I wasn’t sure if it was the right report. It didn’t seem at all like the findings the U-Va. administration’s e-mail had outlined.

The introduction of the e-mail mentioned the variety of new programs the university has implemented “to promote and maintain a safe learning, living, and working environment for every member of our community,” while acknowledging in one sentence that the “OCR identified past deficiencies that were remedied by many of our recent efforts.”

In contrast, OCR’s 26-page “Letter of Findings” notes that not only did U-Va. “not provide for the prompt and equitable resolution of student and employee complaints” of sexual violence “in violation of Title IX” from 2005 to March 2015, but also the “OCR further determined 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, as well as concerning a report filed by a student in 2013 and a report filed by a student in 2014.”

I felt like I had whiplash. I questioned how the university’s e-mail to all students and the article in UVA Today had such different content from the OCR report that the university was supposedly publicizing.

But that feeling reminded me of the all-too-familiar political spin machine. It felt as though Madison Hall, the U-Va. administration building, had become a political campaign’s spin room.

While we’re used to politicians spinning unfavorable tax increases or positions on social issues, I would expect more from a university that prides itself on a tradition of honor.

Shouldn’t universities be fortresses for truth, disclosing that truth even if it hurts?

The reality is that as universities around the nation are considering how to address the epidemic of campus sexual assault, the University of Virginia has in fact made impressive strides.

The new resolution between U-Va. and OCR puts pen to paper on its dedication to serving victims of sexual violence, with OCR agreeing that U-Va.’s new sexual violence “policy is designed to provide a prompt and equitable response to reports of sexual harassment, including sexual violence,” finding it to be “exemplary,” as the U-Va. e-mail noted.

At U-Va., awareness campaigns like “Not on Our Grounds” and #HOOSGotYourBack, programs on effective bystander intervention, and the hiring of new staff to oversee compliance with state and federal legislation are all pushing the university toward a better response to sexual assault.

But only telling students that side of the story erases the past, a past where the university was a hostile environment for victims of sexual assault.

In one of my classes at U-Va. I learned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”: the words of Spanish novelist George Santayana, popularized by Winston Churchill.

Failing to acknowledge the depths to which official university policy failed its students and violated federal law in the past undercuts the legitimate progress the university has made since.

Especially at a university, the administration should help its students to understand past misconduct in order to move forward with genuine efforts of reform.

Read more:

What a massive sexual assault survey found at 27 top U.S. universities, including U-Va.

U-Va. dean sues Rolling Stone for ‘false’ portrayal in retracted rape story